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The kinetics of polyethylenimine (PEI)-mediated gene transfer at early times after transfection of Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cell in suspension were investigated using a novel in vitro assay. Addition of an excess of competitor DNA to the culture medium at various times after the initiation of transfection inhibited further cellular uptake of PEI-DNA particles. Using this approach, a constant rate of particle uptake was observed during the first 60 min of transfection at a PEI:DNA ratio of 2:1 (w/w) and a cell density of 2 x 10(6) cells/ml under serum-free conditions. The uptake rate declined considerably during the next 2 h of transfection. Both the rate and the level of PEI-DNA uptake in serum-free minimal medium were found to be dependent on the PEI-DNA ratio, the cell density at the time of transfection, and the extent of particle aggregation. These studies of the early phase of PEI-mediated transfection are expected to lead to further opportunities for optimization of gene transfer to suspension cultures of mammalian cells for the purpose of large-scale transient recombinant protein production.