Chemical analysis for the characterisation of micro-organisms is rapidly evolving, after the recent advent of new ionisation methods in mass spectrometry (MS): electrospray (ES) and matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionisation (MALDI). These methods allow quick characterisation of micro-organisms, either directly or after minimum sample preparation. This review provides a brief introduction to ES and MALDI MS and a discussion of micro-organism characterisation capabilities. Some attention is devoted to the analysis of mixtures of proteins, lipids and other compounds, to the combination of polymerase chain reaction technology and MS, and to the analysis of whole bacteria and their lysates. The review of results produced hitherto is concluded with an outlook on future developments. (C) 2000 Federation of European Microbiological Societies.