To examine the suitability of synthetic peptides as DNA-binding and -compacting agents for receptor-mediated gene delivery, we have synthesized and characterized a series of branched oligocationic peptides that differ in the number and type (lysine, arginine, ornithine) of cationic amino acids in the DNA-binding moiety. The peptides were designed as branched molecules to provide a coupling site via a spacer for the attachment of effectors at a flexible distance from the DNA-binding moiety. This design provides torsional flexibility in the peptide backbone of the DNA-binding moiety to maximize cation-DNA phosphate interactions and also minimizes the potential for interference by the effector with DNA binding. The branched peptides bind DNA with affinities that increase with the number of cationic groups. The peptides compact DNA into microparticulate structures as judged by an ethidium bromide displacement assay, dynamic light scattering, and electron microscopy. In general, differences in DNA binding and compaction owing to variation in the cationic side chain were modest, with the rank order being arginyl > lysyl approximately ornithyl. Incorporation of tryptophans into the DNA-binding moiety had no major effect on apparent binding affinity but clearly reduced the DNA-compacting potency of the peptides. Compared with polylysine, the peptides and their DNA complexes are weak activators of the complement system. Complement activation by an octaarginyl peptide was stronger than that induced by an octalysyl peptide. The microparticulate peptide-DNA complexes are suitable for receptor-mediated gene delivery as evidenced by transferrinfection of K562 cells in the presence of chloroquine. The results obtained in gene delivery in vitro suggest that a minimum chain length of six to eight cationic amino acids is required to compact DNA into structures active in receptor-mediated gene delivery.