Growth inhibition and cell viability assays demonstrate that the histidine-rich polypeptides isolated from human parotid saliva are bacteriostatic and bactericidal for strains of Streptococcus mutans belonging to the serotype b and c classifications. Both inhibition of growth and cell division are enhanced by preincubation of bacteria with these polypeptides in low-ionic-strength buffers of acidic and neutral pH before dilution into enriched growth media. With prior exposure at pH 6.8, inhibition by these polypeptides of the serotype c strains, S. mutans GS5 and SB, as well as the serotype b strain, S. mutans BHT, is reversible over time under the experimental conditions selected. With similar exposure at pH 5.2, however, irreversible damage is manifested by complete inhibition of both growth and cell viability. At concentrations of 250 micrograms of the mixture of histidine-rich polypeptides per 5 X 10(5) bacterial cells per ml in the acidic preincubation buffer, bacterial lethality is maintained for a period of 48 h in the enriched growth media. At a 50-micrograms/ml concentration of these salivary agents, approximately 80% killing of S. mutans SB is noted after a 24-h incubation; however, surviving bacteria multiply and reach turbidities of untreated control cells when examined at the 48-h growth point. Similarly, hen egg white lysozyme is also found to be bactericidal for these microorganisms when preincubation is carried out under acidic conditions. However, in contrast to the histidine-rich polypeptides, lysozyme under these experimental conditions does not inhibit growth of S. mutans SB at neutral pH, although it does inhibit growth of both S. mutans BHT and S. mutans GS5 at this pH. Preexposure of S. mutans SB to the peptides in buffer at ionic strengths of 0.025 to 0.125, followed by either viability assays under nongrowing conditions or growth inhibition studies, suggests that there is very little effect of ionic strength on the antibacterial function of these peptides. In contrast to the inhibition of viability noted under growing conditions, lower concentrations of the histidine-rich polypeptides were required to elicit immediate cell death under nongrowing conditions.