The influence of PEGylation on polyplex stability from poly(ethylene imine), PEI, and plasmid DNA was investigated both in vitro and after intravenous administration in mice. Polyplexes were characterized with respect to particle size (dynamic light scattering), zeta-potential (laser Doppler anemometry), and morphology (atomic force microscopy). Pharmacokinetics and organ accumulation of both polymers and pDNA were investigated using 125I and 32P radioactive labels, respectively. Furthermore gene expression patterns after 48 h were measured in mice. To elucidate the effect of different doses, all experiments were performed using ca. 1.5 microg and 25 microg of pDNA per mouse. Our studies demonstrated that both PEI and PEG-PEI form stable polyplexes with DNA with similar sizes of 100-130 nm. The zeta potential of PEI/pDNA polyplexes was highly positive, whereas PEG-PEI/pDNA showed a neutral surface charge as expected. The pharmacokinetic and organ distribution profiles after 2 h show similarities for both PEI and pDNA blood-level time curves from polyplexes at both doses indicative for significant stability in the bloodstream. A very rapid clearance from the bloodstream was observed and as major organs of accumulation liver and spleen were identified. PEG-PEI/pDNA complexes at a dose of approximately 25 microg exhibit similar profiles except a significantly lower deposition in the lung. At the lower dose of approximately 1.5 microg pDNA, however, for polyplexes from PEG-PEI, significant differences in blood level curves and organ accumulation of polymer and pDNA were found. In this case PEG-PEI shows a greatly enhanced circulation time in the bloodstream. By contrast, pDNA was rapidly cleared from circulation and significant amounts of radioactivity were found in the urine, suggesting a rapid degradation possibly by serum nucleases after complex separation. Regarding in vivo gene expression, no luciferase expression could be detected at approximately 1.5 microg dose in any organ using both types of complexes. At 25 microg only in the case of PEI/pDNA complexes were significant levels of the reporter gene detected in lung, liver, and spleen. This coincided with high initial accumulation of pDNA complexed with PEI and a high acute in vivo toxicity. For PEG-PEI, initial accumulation was much lower and no gene expression as well as a low acute toxicity was found. In summary, our data demonstrate that PEG-PEI used in this study is not suitable for low dose gene delivery. At a higher dose of approximately 25 microg, however, polyplex stability is similar to PEI/pDNA combined with a more favorable organ deposition and significantly lower acute in vivo toxicity. These findings have consequences for the design of PEG-PEI-based gene delivery systems for in vivo application.