In order to establish a simple and scaleable transfection system we have used the cationic polymer polyethylenimine (PEI) to study transient transfection in HEK293 and 293(EBNA) cells grown in serum-free suspension culture. The transfection complexes were made directly within the cell culture by consecutively adding plasmid and PEI (direct method). Alternatively, the DNA-PEI transfection complexes were prepared in fresh medium (1/10 culture volume) and then added to the cells (indirect method). The results of this study clearly show that the ratio of PEI nitrogen to DNA phosphate is very important for high expression levels. The precise ratio is dependent on the DNA concentration. For example, using 1 mug/ml DNA by the indirect method, the ratio of optimal PEI:DNA was about 10-13:1. However, the ratio increases to 33:1 for 0.1-0.2 mug/ml DNA. By testing several different molecular weights of the polycationic polymer we could show that the highest transfection efficiency was obtained with the PEI 25 kDa. Using PEI 25 kDa the indirect method is superior to the direct addition because significantly lower DNA concentrations are needed. The expression levels of the soluble human TNF receptor p55 are even higher at low DNA compared to 1 mug/ml plasmid. The EBV-based pREP vectors gave better transient gene expression when used in 293(EBNA) cells compared to HEK293 cells in suspension culture. No differences in expression levels in the two cell lines were observed when the pC1 (CMV)-TNFR was used. In conclusion, PEI is a low-toxic transfection agent which provides high levels of transient gene expression in 293(EBNA) cells grown in serum-free suspension culture. This system allows highly reproducible, cost-effective production of milligram amounts of recombinant proteins in 2-5 l spinner culture scale within 3-5 days. Fermentor scale experiments, however, are less efficient because the PEI-mediated transient tranfection is inhibited by conditioned medium.