Protamine is a cationic peptide with a molecular mass of approx. 4000 Da that is able to condense DNA. In the present study it was used to complex antisense oligonucleotides (ODNs) and to form solid particles with initial diameters of 90-150 nm. The reaction was very rapid and occurred by simple mixing of diluted solutions of the polycation with the oligonucleotide. The aggregation was dependent on the oligonucleotide chain length and the protamine/ODN mass ratio. Particle formation required a minimal chain length of nine nucleotides and a mass ratio of 0.5:1. The particle surface charge and the number of particles depended on the mass ratio. With increasing amounts of the peptide, the number of particles and the zeta potential increased. Both negatively and positively charged particles improved the stability of oligonucleotides against DNase I digestion. Above a mass ratio of 2.5:1 no degradation was found. The uptake of unbound rhodamine-labelled ODNs and its complexes with protamine was determined with Vero cells under in vitro cell culture conditions at 37 degrees C and 4 degrees C. At 37 degrees C the cellular uptake increased with increasing mass ratio. The internalized oligonucleotides were localized in the cytoplasm and in the nucleus of the cells. When Vero cells were treated with these samples at 4 degrees C for 4 h, no fluorescence could be detected inside the cells. Therefore, our data indicate an energy dependent endocytotic uptake mechanism. In contrast, spermine and spermidine, which are also known condensation agents, did not aggregate with oligonucleotides into nanoparticles under the same conditions.