BACKGROUND: Characterization and use of antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) requires that their mode of action is determined. The interaction of membrane-active peptides with their target is often established using model membranes, however, the actual permeabilization of live bacterial cells and subsequent killing is usually not tested. In this report, six α-peptide/β-peptoid chimeras were examined for the effect of amino acid/peptoid substitutions and chain length on the membrane perturbation and subsequent killing of food-borne and clinical bacterial isolates. RESULTS: All six AMP analogues inhibited growth of twelve food-borne and clinical bacterial strains including Extended Spectrum Beta-Lactamase-producing Escherichia coli. In general, the Minimum Inhibitory Concentrations (MIC) against Gram-positive and -negative bacteria were similar, ranging from 1 to 5 μM. The type of cationic amino acid only had a minor effect on MIC values, whereas chain length had a profound influence on activity. All chimeras were less active against Serratia marcescens (MICs above 46 μM). The chimeras were bactericidal and induced leakage of ATP from Staphylococcus aureus and S. marcescens with similar time of onset and reduction in the number of viable cells. EDTA pre-treatment of S. marcescens and E. coli followed by treatment with chimeras resulted in pronounced killing indicating that disintegration of the Gram-negative outer membrane eliminated innate differences in susceptibility. Chimera chain length did not influence the degree of ATP leakage, but the amount of intracellular ATP remaining in the cell after treatment was influenced by chimera length with the longest analogue causing complete depletion of intracellular ATP. Hence some chimeras caused a complete disruption of the membrane, and this was parallel by the largest reduction in number of viable bacteria. CONCLUSION: We found that chain length but not type of cationic amino acid influenced the antibacterial activity of a series of synthetic α-peptide/β-peptoid chimeras. The synthetic chimeras exert their killing effect by permeabilization of the bacterial cell envelope, and the outer membrane may act as a barrier in Gram-negative bacteria. The tolerance of S. marcescens to chimeras may be due to differences in the composition of the lipopolysaccharide layer also responsible for its resistance to polymyxin B.