A one-step preparation of nanoparticles with poly(lactide-co-glycolide) (PLGA) pre-modified with polyethylenimine (PEI) is better in requirements for DNA delivery compared to those prepared in a two-step process (preformed PLGA nanoparticles and subsequently coated with PEI). The particles were prepared by emulsification of PLGA/ethyl acetate in an aqueous solution of PVA and PEI. DLS, AFM and SEM were used for the size characteristics. The cytotoxicity of PLGA/PEI nanoparticles was detected by mu assay. The transfection activity of the particles was measured using pEGFP and p beta-gal plasmid DNA. Results showed that the PLGA/PEI nanoparticles were spherical and non-porous with a size of about 0.2 mu m and a small size distribution. These particles had a positive zeta potential demonstrating that PEI was attached. Interestingly, the zeta potential of the particles (from one-step procedure) was substantially higher than that of two-step process and is ascribed to the conjugation of PEI to PLGA via aminolysis. The PLGA/PEI nanoparticles were able to bind DNA and the formed complexes had a substantially lower cytotoxicity and a higher transfection activity than PEI polyplexes. In conclusion, given their small size, stability, low cytotoxicity and good transfection activity, PLGA/PEI-DNA complexes are attractive gene delivery systems. (c) 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.