The inducement of K+ permeability through membranes by the polyene antibiotic amphotericin B (AmB) has been analyzed as a measure of the antibiotic activity. Dose-response curves have been obtained with cholesterol- and ergosterol-containing egg yolk phosphatidylcholine large unilamellar vesicles (LUVs), human erythrocytes, and Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells. Conductance changes induced by AmB in sterol-containing planar bilayer membranes have also been studied. AmB self-association in aqueous buffer was determined by circular dichroism (CD) as a function of the antibiotic concentration. Electronic absorption and CD spectra of AmB were recorded in the presence of LUVs. For given AmB concentrations, the extent of permeability inducement is dependent on the lipid concentration. On the other hand, for cholesterol-containing LUVs or erythrocytes, a critical AmB concentration had to be reached before any permeability is observed. Independent of lipid concentration, this concentration was directly related to antibiotic self-association in the aqueous buffer. The same observation was made for erythrocytes and nystatin. The AmB absorption and CD spectra were totally different for ergosterol- and cholesterol-containing LUVs. Formation of single channels by one-sided addition of AmB could be observed only in ergosterol-containing membranes. These data lead us to propose that the permeability pathways induced by amphotericin B or nystatin, in ergosterol- and in cholesterol-containing membranes, are of different natures. In the latter case the antibiotics are only active, by single-sided addition, in the self-associated form. These findings offer important clues for the design of less toxic derivatives of AmB: they should have a low degree of self-association in water.