Bacterial endotoxins or lipopolysaccharides (LPS), cell wall components of gram-negative bacteria, are involved in septic shock. LPS consists of a lipid A tail attached to core and O-antigen polysaccharides, but little is known about the supramolecular structure of LPS in blood. We have developed an approach to locate donor and acceptor probes in sulfobetaine palmitate detergent micelles using steady-state and time-resolved fluorescence resonance energy transfer. C18-fluorescein and several LPS species of varying molecular weight labeled with fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC-LPS) were the donor probes. Acceptor probes were 1,1-dilinoleyl-3,3,3',3'-tetramethyl indocarbocyanine perchlorate (Fast C18-Dil, Ro approximately 68 A), and octadecyl B rhodamine chloride (C18-Rhd, Ro approximately 58 A). With either acceptor, the transfer was of similar high efficiency when FITC-LPS Salmonella minnesota Re 595 (2,500 mol wt, lacking both core and O-antigen) or C18-fluorescein were the fluorescent donor probes. Thus, the donor FITC-LPS with short polysaccharide chain S. minnesota Re 595 and the control donor C18-fluorescein appear to be close to the micelle surface. The transfer efficiency decreased as the molecular weight of the LPS increased. Separation distances between the longest FITC-LPS, S. minnesota (20,000 mol wt, with a long O-antigen), and the micelle were estimated to be 1.5 Ro or more (approximately 100 A), consistent with an extended conformation for the longer O-antigen polysaccharide chain in the detergent.