Optical indicators of the cationic, cyanine and anionic oxonol classes were used to evaluate the plasma membrane potential of animal cells in suspension and in monolayer culture. The optical signals were calibrated by using diffusion potential either of K+ (in the presence of valinomycin) or of H+ (in the presence of carbonyl cyanide p-trifluoromethoxyphenylhydrazone; FCCP); both classes of dye gave similar values of plasma membrane potential, in the range −40 to −90 mV for different cell types. Addition of haemolytic Sendai virus or Staphylococcus aureus α-toxin depolarizes cells and causes them to leak monovalent cations; these effects are antagonized by extracellular Ca2+. Cells infected with vesicular stomatitis or Semliki Forest virus become depolarized during an infectious cycle; infection with other viruses was without affect on plasma membrane potential.