Complexes composed of peptide ligand for the serpin enzyme complex receptor covalently coupled to poly-L-lysine condensed by charge interaction with plasmid DNA direct gene transfer into receptor bearing cells. We compared intensity and duration of reporter gene expression in vitro and in vivo from serpin-enzyme receptor-directed gene transfer complexes prepared with poly-L-lysine of different chain lengths. When substituted with linker and ligand to comparable extents, DNA complexes containing short chain poly- L-lysine were larger and gave higher peak expression but significantly shorter duration of expression than those containing long chain poly-L- lysine. Both peak expression and duration of expression exceeded that observed with Lipofectin. Neither naked DNA nor DNA complexed with unsubstituted polylysine was effective in gene transfer. For in vivo experiments, complexes containing optimal ligand and degree of substitution (based on in vitro data, peptide C105Y, 11 ligands/plasmid DNA molecule) were prepared with either short chain or long chain polylysine and a β- galactosidase expression plasmid. Following injection into the tail veins of mice, longer chain complexes gave significantly higher expression of reporter gene in lung and spleen that lasted for a significantly longer period of time than the shorter chain complexes. The short chain poly-L-lysine-DNA complexes were larger in diameter, as assessed by electron microscopy or atomic force microscopy, and gave less protection against DNase digestion in vitro than longer chain complexes. Thus, for gene transfer complexes directed at the serpin enzyme complex receptor, longer chain poly-L-lysin gave a much longer duration of expression both in vitro and in vivo. We speculate that this may be due to protection against degradation afforded the plasmid DNA by the tighter compaction produced by long chain poly-L-lysine.