To determine the antibacterial activity of defensins and other antimicrobial peptides in biopsy extracts, we evaluated a flow cytometric method with the membrane potential sensitive dye bis-(1,3-dibutylbarbituric acid) trimethine oxonol [DiBAC4(3)]. This assay enables us to discriminate intact non-fluorescent and depolarized fluorescent bacteria after exposure to antimicrobial peptides by measurement at the direct target, the cytoplasmic membrane and the membrane potential. The feasibility of the flow cytometric assay was evaluated with recombinant human beta-defensin 3 (HBD-3) against 25 bacterial strains representing 12 species. HBD-3 showed a broad-spectrum dose dependent activity and the minimal dose to cause depolarization ranged from 1.25 to >15 microg/ml HBD-3, depending on the species tested. The antibacterial effect was diminished with sodium chloride or dithiothreitol and could be abrogated with a HBD-3 antibody. Additionally, isolated cationic extracts from human intestinal biopsies showed a strong bactericidal effect against Escherichia coli K12, E. coli ATCC 25922 and Staphylococcus aureus ATCC 25923, which was diminished towards E. coli at 150 mM NaCl, whereas the activity towards S. aureus ATCC 25923 remained unaffected at physiological salt concentrations. DTT blocked the bactericidal effect of biopsy extracts completely.