Electrostatic binding of polycations or basic polypeptides to the DNA phosphate backbone has been previously described as a one-step process which results in uncontrolled aggregation and precipitation of the DNA in solution. We describe here a multistep process in which the condensation of DNA in the presence of poly-L-lysine can be controlled to produce particles of discrete size and shape suitable for receptor-mediated gene transfer in vivo and in vitro. The first step in this process involves the gradual accretion of poly- L-lysine onto the DNA phosphate backbone, until charges are neutralized. The addition of poly-L-lysine to a concentrated solution of DNA in this fashion prevents intermolecular aggregation of the DNA, presumably by promoting the formation of a nucleus of condensation along the length of each DNA molecule. The second stage of the process involves adjusting the ionic strength of the solvent to facilitate the solubilization of compact DNA-poly-L-lysine complexes. Several physical and biochemical parameters have been studied and correlated with the efficacy of DNA/ligand-poly-L-lysine particles in transferring genes to the liver of adult animals by receptor-mediated endocytosis.