Cationic polymers, such as polybrene and protamine sulfate, are typically used to increase the efficiency of retrovirus-mediated gene transfer, however, the mechanism of their enhancement of transduction has remained unclear. As retrovirus transduction is fundamentally limited by the slow diffusion of virus to the target cell surface, we investigated the ability of polybrene to modulate this initial transport step. We compared the ability of both envelope (gp70) and capsid (p30) protein based assays to quantitate virus adsorption and found that p30 based assays were more reliable due to their ability to distinguish virus binding from free gp70 binding. Using the p30 based assay, we established that polybrene concentrations, which yielded 10-fold increases in transduction also, yielded a significant increase in virus adsorption rates on murine fibroblasts. Surprisingly, this enhancement, and adsorption in general, were receptor and envelope independent, as adsorption occurred equivalently on receptor positive and negative Chinese hamster ovary cells, as well as with envelope positive and negative virus particles. These findings suggest that the currently accepted physical model for early steps in retrovirus transduction may need to be reformulated to accommodate an initial adsorption step whose driving force does not include the retrovirus concentration, and the reclassification of currently designated 'receptor' molecules as fusion triggers. The implication of these findings with respect to the development of targeted retrovirus-mediated gene therapy protocols is discussed.