Antisense gene inhibition occurs when an oligonucleotide (ON) has sufficient binding affinity such that it hybridizes its reverse complementary target RNA and prevents translation either by causing inactivation of the RNA (possibly by RNase H) or by interfering with a cellular process such as stalling a ribosome. The mechanisms underlying these processes were explored. Cellular antisense inhibition was evaluated in a microinjection assay using ON modifications which precluded or allowed in vitro RNase H cleavage of ON/RNA hybrids. RNase H-independent inhibition of protein synthesis could be achieved by targeting either the 5'-untranslated region or the 5'-splice junction of SV40 large T antigen using 2'-O-allyl phosphodiester ONs which contained C-5 propynylpyrimidines (C-5 propyne). Inhibition at both sites was 20-fold less active than inhibition using RNase H-competent C-5 propyne 2'-deoxy phosphorothioate ONs. In vitro analysis of association and dissociation of the two classes of ONs with complementary RNA showed that the C-5 propyne 2'-O-allyl phosphodiester ON bound to RNA as well as the C-5 propyne 2'-deoxy phosphorothioate ON. In vitro translation assays suggested that the two classes of ONs should yield equivalent antisense effects in the absence of RNase H. Next, ON/T antigen RNA hybrids were injected into the nuclei and cytoplasm of cells. Injection of C-5 propyne 2'-O-allyl phosphodiester ON/RNA hybrids resulted in expression of T antigen, implying that the ONs dissociated from the RNA in cells which likely accounted for their low potency. In contrast, when C-5 propyne 2'-deoxy phosphorothioate ON/T antigen RNA complexes were injected into the nucleus, the duplexes were stable enough to completely block T antigen translation, presumably by RNA inactivation. Thus, a dramatic finding is that C-5 propyne 2'-deoxy phosphorothioate ONs, once hybridized to RNA, are completely effective at preventing mRNA translation. The implication is that further increases in complex stability coupled with effective RNase H cleavage will not result in enhanced potency. We predict that the development of more effective ONs will only come from modifications which increase the rate of ON/RNA complex formation within the nucleus.