Recently the pH gradient evoked by a K+ diffusion potential was shown to translocate a synthetic monobasic amphipathic hexapeptide across the bilayer of lipid vesicles (De Kroon, A.I.P.M., Vogt, B., Van 't Hof, R., De Kruijff, B. and De Gier, J. (1991) Biophys. J. 60, in press). Here this observation is extended by studying the effect of a membrane potential on a set of bioactive peptides. The panel of peptides comprises the toxin mastoparan X, a tryptophan-containing analogue of the presequence of the mitochondrial protein cytochrome oxidase subunit IV (preCoxIV(1-25)W18), and the regulatory peptides ACTH(1-24), alpha-MSH, ACTH(1-10), dynorphin A, bombesin, and LHRH. The interaction of these peptides with phospholipid vesicles has been measured using the intrinsic tryptophan residue as fluorescent probe. In the absence of a K+ diffusion potential only mastoparan X and the presequence show considerable binding to vesicles consisting of phosphatidylcholine (PC). In contrast, under these conditions all peptides display affinity for vesicles consisting of the acidic phospholipid cardiolipin (CL), the extent of which depends on the net positive charge of the peptide. Application of a K+ diffusion potential to large unilamellar vesicles (LUV) consisting of PC results in a time dependent tryptophan fluorescence increase for mastoparan X, which is accelerated upon incorporating increasing amounts of CL into the LUV. A similar fluorescence increase in response to a K+ diffusion potential was observed for the above model peptide. Yet the mechanism resulting in the fluorescence increase of mastoparan X is completely different from that of the hexapeptide. Binding experiments indicate that a membrane potential-induced enhanced binding of the peptide to the outer surface of the vesicles contributes to the fluorescence increase. PreCoxIV(1-25)W18, dynorphin A, and ACTH(1-24) show fluorescence responses upon applying a membrane potential that are consistent with that of mastoparan X, whereas the other peptides tested do not respond up to a LUV CL content of 50%. The results tentatively suggest that the membrane potential only affects a peptide when it has the ability to adopt a stable membrane bound conformation.