The relationship between the magnitude of the transmembrane electrical potential and the uptake of [14C]gentamicin was examined in wild-type Staphylococcus aureus in the logarithmic phase of growth. The electrical potential (delta psi) and the pH gradient across the cell membrane were determined by measuring the equilibrium distribution of [3H]tetraphenyl-phosphonium and [14C]acetylsalicylic acid, respectively. Incubation in the presence of the H+-ATPase inhibitor N,N'-dicyclohexylcarbodiimide (DCCD) led to an increase in delta psi with no measurable effect on the pH gradient at external pHs ranging from 5.0 to 6.5, and the effect on delta psi was DCCD concentration dependent. In separate experiments, gentamicin uptake and killing were studied in the same cells under identical conditions. At pH 5.0 (delta psi = -140 mV), no gentamicin uptake occurred. In the presence of 40 and 100 microM DCCD, delta psi was increased to -162 and -184 mV, respectively, and gentamicin uptake was observed in a manner that was also dependent on the DCCD concentration. At pH 6.0 (delta psi = -164 mV), gentamicin uptake occurred in the absence of the carbodiimide but was enhanced in a concentration-dependent fashion by 40 and 100 microM DCCD (delta psi = -174 and -216 mV, respectively). In all cases increased gentamicin uptake was associated with an enhanced bactericidal effect. The results indicate that initiation of gentamicin uptake requires a threshold level of delta psi (-155 mV) and that above this level drug uptake is directly dependent on the magnitude of delta psi.