Development of nonviral particles for gene delivery requires a greater understanding of the properties that enable gene delivery particles to overcome the numerous barriers to intracellular DNA delivery. Linear poly(beta-amino) esters (PBAE) have shown substantial promise for gene delivery, but the mechanism behind their effectiveness is not well quantified with respect to these barriers. In this study, we synthesized, characterized, and evaluated for gene delivery an array of linear PBAEs that differed by small changes along the backbone, side chain, and end group of the polymers. We examined particle size and surface charge, polymer molecular weight, polymer degradation rate, buffering capacity, cellular uptake, transfection, and cytotoxicity of nanoparticles formulated with these polymers. Significantly, this is the first study that has quantified how small differential structural changes to polymers of this class modulate buffering capacity and polymer degradation rate and relates these findings to gene delivery efficacy. All polymers formed positively charged (zeta potential 21-29 mV) nanosized particles (∼150 nm). The polymers hydrolytically degraded quickly in physiological conditions, with half-lives ranging from 90 min to 6 h depending on polymer structure. The PBAE buffering capacities in the relevant pH range (pH 5.1-7.4) varied from 34% to 95% protonatable amines, and on a per mass basis, PBAEs buffered 1.4-4.6 mmol of H(+)/g. When compared to 25 kDa branched polyethyleneimine (PEI), PBAEs buffer significantly fewer protons/mass, as PEI buffers 6.2 mmol of H(+)/g over the same range. However, due to the relatively low cytotoxicity of PBAEs, higher polymer mass can be used to form particles than with PEI and total buffering capacity of PBAE-based particles significantly exceeds that of PEI. Uptake into COS-7 cells ranged from 0% to 95% of cells and transfection ranged from 0% to 93% of cells, depending on the base polymer structure and the end modifications examined. Five polymers achieved higher uptake and transfection efficacy with less toxicity than branched-PEI control. Surprisingly, acrylate-terminated base polymers were dramatically less efficacious than their end-capped versions, in terms of both uptake (1-3% for acrylate, 75-94% for end-capped) and transfection efficacy (0-1% vs 20-89%), even though there are minimal differences between acrylate and end-capped polymers in terms of DNA retardation in gel electrophoresis, particle size, zeta potential, and cytotoxicity. These studies further elucidate the role of polymer structure for gene delivery and highlight that small molecule end-group modification of a linear polymer can be critical for cellular uptake in a manner that is largely independent of polymer/DNA binding, particle size, and particle surface charge.