Onconase (ONC) is a member of the ribonuclease A superfamily that is toxic to cancer cells in vitro and in vivo. ONC is now in Phase IIIb clinical trials for the treatment of malignant mesothelioma. Internalization of ONC to the cytosol of cancer cells is essential for its cytotoxic activity, despite the apparent absence of a cell-surface receptor protein. Endocytosis and cytotoxicity do, however, appear to correlate with the net positive charge of ribonucleases. To dissect the contribution made by the endogenous arginine and lysine residues of ONC to its cytotoxicity, 22 variants were created in which cationic residues were replaced with alanine. Variants with the same net charge (+2 to +5) as well as equivalent catalytic activity and conformational stability were found to exhibit large (> 10-fold) differences in toxicity for the cells of a human leukemia line. In addition, a more cationic ONC variant could be either much more or much less cytotoxic than a less cationic variant, again depending on the distribution of its cationic residues. The endocytosis of variants with widely divergent cytotoxic activity was quantified by flow cytometry using a small-molecule fluorogenic label, and was found to vary by twofold or less. This small difference in endocytosis did not account for the large difference in cytotoxicity, implicating the distribution of cationic residues as being critical for lipid-bilayer translocation subsequent to endocytosis. This finding has fundamental implications for understanding the interaction of ribonucleases and other proteins with mammalian cells.