In metaphase chromosomes, chromatin is compacted to a concentration of several hundred mg/ml by mechanisms which remain elusive. Effects mediated by the ionic environment are considered most frequently because mono- and di-valent cations cause polynucleosome chains to form compact ~30-nm diameter fibres in vitro, but this conformation is not detected in chromosomes in situ. A further unconsidered factor is predicted to influence the compaction of chromosomes, namely the forces which arise from crowding by macromolecules in the surrounding cytoplasm whose measured concentration is 100-200 mg/ml. To mimic these conditions, chromosomes were released from mitotic CHO cells in solutions containing an inert volume-occupying macromolecule (8 kDa polyethylene glycol, 10.5 kDa dextran, or 70 kDa Ficoll) in 100 µM K-Hepes buffer, with contaminating cations at only low micromolar concentrations. Optical and electron microscopy showed that these chromosomes conserved their characteristic structure and compaction, and their volume varied inversely with the concentration of a crowding macromolecule. They showed a canonical nucleosomal structure and contained the characteristic proteins topoisomerase IIα and the condensin subunit SMC2. These observations, together with evidence that the cytoplasm is crowded in vivo, suggest that macromolecular crowding effects should be considered a significant and perhaps major factor in compacting chromosomes. This model may explain why ~30-nm fibres characteristic of cation-mediated compaction are not seen in chromosomes in situ. Considering that crowding by cytoplasmic macromolecules maintains the compaction of bacterial chromosomes and has been proposed to form the liquid crystalline chromosomes of dinoflagellates, a crowded environment may be an essential characteristic of all genomes.