Abstract Background The HE2 gene encodes a group of isoforms with similarities to the antimicrobial beta-defensins. We demonstrated earlier that the antimicrobial activity of HE2 proteins and peptides is salt resistant and structure dependent and involves permeabilization of bacterial membranes. In this study, we further characterize the antimicrobial properties of HE2 peptides in terms of the structural changes induced in E. coli and the inhibition of macromolecular synthesis. Methods E. coli treated with 50 micro g/ml of HE2alpha, HE2beta1 or HE2beta2 peptides for 30 and 60 min were visualized using transmission and scanning electron microscopy to investigate the impact of these peptides on bacterial internal and external structure. The effects of HE2alpha, HE2beta1 and HE2beta2 on E. coli macromolecular synthesis was assayed by incubating the bacteria with 2, 10 and 25 micro g/ml of the individual peptides for 0–60 min and measuring the incorporation of the radioactive precursors [methyl-3H]thymidine, [5-3H]uridine and L-[4,5-3H(N)]leucine into DNA, RNA and protein. Statistical analyses using Student's t-test were performed using Sigma Plot software. Values shown are Mean ± S.D. Results E. coli treated with HE2alpha, HE2beta1 and HE2beta2 peptides as visualized by transmission electron microscopy showed extensive damage characterized by membrane blebbing, thickening of the membrane, highly granulated cytoplasm and appearance of vacuoles in contrast to the smooth and continuous membrane structure of the untreated bacteria. Similarly, bacteria observed by scanning electron microscopy after treating with HE2alpha, HE2beta1 or HE2beta2 peptides exhibited membrane blebbing and wrinkling, leakage of cellular contents, especially at the dividing septa, and external accumulation of fibrous materials. In addition, HE2alpha, HE2beta1 and HE2beta2 peptides inhibited E. coli DNA, RNA and protein synthesis. Conclusions The morphological changes observed in E. coli treated with epididymal HE2 peptides provide further evidence for their membrane dependent mechanism of antibacterial action. HE2 C-terminal peptides can inhibit E. coli macromolecular synthesis, suggesting an additional mechanism of bacterial killing supplementary to membrane permeabilization.