Dermaseptins are a family of antimicrobial peptides that lyse target bacterial cells by destabilization of their membranes. Here we present a novel application of a peptide derived from the dermaseptin S4, S4(13). At nontoxic concentrations, fluorescently labeled S4(13) was able to penetrate intact cultured HeLa cells but essentially failed to enter their nuclei despite its low molecular weight. Covalent attachment of nuclear localization signal (NLS) motifs of the SV40-T-antigen and of the HIV-1 Rev protein (ARM) conferred karyophilic properties upon the S4(13). The resulting peptides, which were designated as PV-S4(13) and RR-S4(13) penetrated into intact HeLa cells and were able to accumulate within the cells' nuclei. In studies with digitonin-permeabilized cells, nuclear uptake of the PV-S4(13) and the RR-S4(13) peptides showed the same features that characterize active nuclear import. Nuclear import was observed at 37 degrees C, was ATP-dependent, and was inhibited by the free peptides bearing the SV40 NLS and the Rev and Tat ARMs. Microinjected S4(13) remained in the cytoplasm while microinjected RR-S4(13) was translocated into the cells' nuclei. The new type of cell-permeable "karyophilic" peptides described here may be of potential application as a lead compound for therapeutic purposes, as a tool to study nucleocytoplasmic shuttling in intact cells, and for the delivery of peptides to the nucleus.