Many of the applications of liposomes drug-delivery systems have been limited by their short circulation half-lives as a result of rapid uptake into the reticuloendothelial (mononuclear phagocyte) system. We have recently described liposomes formulations with long circulation half-lives in mice (Allen, T.M. and Chonn, A. (1987) FEBS Lett. 223, 42-46). A study of the principal factors important to the attainment of liposomes with prolonged circulation half-lives is presented in this manuscript. Liposomes with the longest circulation half-lives, in mice, had compositions which mimicked the outer leaflet of red blood cell membranes (egg phosphatidylcholine/sphingomyelin/cholesterol/ganglioside GM1, molar ratio 1:1:1:0.14). Several other gangliosides and glycolipids were examined, but none could substitute for GM1 in their ability to prolong circulation half-lives. However, other negatively charged lipids with bulky headgroups, i.e., sulfatides and phosphatidylinositol, had some effect in prolonging circulation half-lives, but GM1 was clearly superior in this regard. Bilayer rigidity, imparted by sphingomyelin or other high-phase-transition lipids, acted synergistically with the negatively charged components, especially GM1, in extending circulation times. Circulation half-lives of liposomes increased with decreasing size, but even larger (0.2-0.4 microns) liposomes of the optimum formulations had significantly prolonged half-lives in circulation. Uptake of liposomes into tissues other than liver and spleen increased with increasing circulation times of the liposomes for i.v. and for i.p. injections. Liposomes appeared to move from the circulation into the carcass between 6 and 24 h post-injection. Our ability to achieve significant prolongation in circulation times of liposomes makes possible a number of therapeutic applications of liposomes which, until now, have not been achievable.