The bactericidal activity of chitosan (CS) acetate solution against Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus was evaluated by the enumeration of viable organisms at different incubation times. Morphologies of bacteria treated with CS were observed by transmission electron microscopy (TEM). The integrity of the cell membranes of both species and the permeabilities of the outer membrane (OM) and inner membrane (IM) of E. coli were investigated by determining the release from cells of materials that absorb at 260 nm, changes in the fluorescence of cells treated with the fluorescent probe 1-N-phenylnaphthylamine (NPN) and release of cytoplasmic beta-galactosidase activity. In addition, the interaction of CS with synthetic phospholipid membranes was studied using gel permeation chromatography (GPC), UV-VIS spectrophotometery, Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) and thermal analysis. Results showed that CS increased the permeability of the OM and IM and ultimately disrupted bacterial cell membranes, with the release of cellular contents. This damage was likely caused by the electrostatic interaction between NH(3)(+) groups of CS acetate and phosphoryl groups of phospholipid components of cell membranes.