This study reports the effects of exposure to increasing osmotic pressure on the viability and membrane structure of Escherichia coli. Changes in membrane structure after osmotic stress were investigated by electron transmission microscopy, measurement of the anisotropy of the membrane fluorescent probe DPH (1,6-diphenyl-1,3,5-hexatriene) inserted in E. coli, and Fourier infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). The results show that, above a critical osmotic pressure of 35 MPa, the viability of the bacterium is drastically reduced (2 log decrease in survivors). Electron micrographs revealed a severe contraction of the cytoplasm and the formation of membrane vesicles at 40 MPa. Changes in DPH anisotropy showed that osmotic dehydration to 40 MPa promoted a decrease in the membrane fluidity of integral cells of E. coli. FTIR measurements showed that at 10-40 MPa a transition from lamellar liquid crystal to lamellar gel among the phospholipids extracted from E. coli occurred. Bacterial death resulting from dehydration can be attributed to the conjunction between membrane deformation, caused by the volumetric contraction, and structural changes of the membrane lipids. The influence of the latter on the formation of membrane vesicles and on membrane permeabilization at lethal osmotic pressure is discussed, since vesiculation is hypothetically responsible for cell death.