Efficiency of transfection is probably dependent on the rate of intracellular degradation of plasmid DNA. When a non-viral vector is used, it is not known to what extent the plasmid DNA catabolism is subordinated to the catabolism of the vector. In the work reported here, the problem was approached by following the intracellular fate in rat liver, of plasmid [35S]DNA complexed with a cationic peptide poly-L-lysine that can be hydrolyzed by cellular peptidases or with its stereoisomer, poly-D-lysine, that cannot be split by these enzymes. Complexes of DNA with poly-L-lysine and poly-D-lysine are taken up to the same extent by the liver, mainly by Kupffer cells, but the intracellular degradation of nucleic acid molecules is markedly quicker when poly-L-lysine is injected. The association of DNA with the polycations inhibits DNA hydrolysis in vitro by purified lysosomes but similarly for poly-L-lysine and poly-D-lysine. The intracellular journey followed by [35S]DNA complexed with poly-L- or poly-D-lysine was investigated using differential and isopycnic centrifugation. Results indicate that [35S]DNA is transferred more slowly to lysosomes, the main site of intracellular degradation of endocytosed macromolecules, when it is given as a complex with poly-D-lysine than with poly-L-lysine. They suggest that the digestion of the vector in a prelysosomal compartment is required to allow endocytosed plasmid DNA to rapidly reach lysosomes. Such a phenomenon could explain why injected plasmid DNA is more stable in vivo when it is associated with poly-D-lysine.