Nystatin interaction with liposomes mimicking fungal and mammalian membranes (ergosterol- and cholesterol-containing 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine (POPC) large unilamellar vesicles, respectively) was studied by fluorescence spectroscopy. The activity of this antibiotic was also measured using a pyranine fluorescence detected K+/H+ exchange assay. Nystatin mean fluorescence lifetime varied with the antibiotic concentration and ergosterol content (0-30 mol%) of the lipid vesicles. It sharply increased from 5 to 37 ns upon reaching 100 molecules per liposome, reporting nystatin oligomerization in the membrane. Concomitantly, spectral alterations typical of excitonic coupling were detected and there was a pronounced increase in the initial rate of pore formation by nystatin. These findings suggest that nystatin exerts its antibiotic activity via a two-stage mechanism: at low antibiotic concentrations, surface-adsorbed monomeric antibiotic molecules perturb the lipid packing, changing the permeability properties of the ergosterol-rich liposomes. Upon reaching a critical threshold, nystatin mode of action switches to the classical model of transmembrane aqueous channel formation. In the presence of cholesterol-containing POPC liposomes, neither nystatin spectroscopic properties, nor the kinetics of K+ efflux varied with the antibiotic concentration suggesting that in this case the first stage of antibiotic mode of action always prevails or the assemblies formed by nystatin and cholesterol are very loose.