Aminoglycoside antibiotics bind to negatively-charged membranes in vitro as well as in vivo. We have examined if this binding could be associated with a change in the properties of membrane permeability. We have used a series of aminoglycoside derivatives and two independent test systems, namely (i) the release of calcein and of Mn2+ from phosphatidylinositol-containing large unilamellar vesicles, and (ii) the influx of Ca2+ into cultured macrophages. We found that certain aminoglycosides (e.g., streptomycin, isepamicin) markedly increase the membrane permeability whereas others (e.g., gentamicin) barely or do not influence it. This increase, when it occurs, is slower or less extensive than observed with pore-forming agents (mellitin, nystatin) or a Ca(2+)-ionophore (ionomycin). It is not observed with an agent [bis(beta-diethylaminoethylether)hexestrol] known to cause membrane fusion, and is not associated with any detectable change in membrane fluidity. In computer-aided conformational analysis of mixed monolayers between phosphatidylinositol and the aminoglycosides studied, it was found that those derivatives inducing an increase in membrane permeability in our experiments adopted an orientation rather perpendicular to the interface, whereas those with no or only a moderate effect were placed in a parallel orientation to this interface. The perpendicular orientation might cause a local condition of disorder which could explain the effects observed.