Noncharged antisense compounds, such as phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomers (PMOs), do not readily enter mammalian cells in culture. A simple and effective means for cellular delivery of PMOs is through their conjugation to arginine-rich peptides. Understanding the effect of peptide conjugation on the efficacy, toxicity, and specificity of PMOs is important to the successful application of this antisense delivery method. We investigated the effects of conjugation of arginine-rich peptides to PMO on the thermal stability, efficacy and specificity for targeted RNA of the resulting compound. In vitro translation assays showed that (1) R9F2-PMO generated antisense activity 3-25-fold higher than corresponding nonconjugated PMO, (2) the level of antisense activity enhancement by R9F2-PMO over a corresponding nonconjugated PMO is related to the GC content of the PMO sequence, (3) R9F2 conjugation reduced the minimum length of a PMO required to inactivate a target RNA from 20 bases to 14 bases, and (4) nonspecific effects of R9F2-PMO occur at lower concentrations than corresponding PMO alone. Thermal stability of heteroduplexes of PMO and complementary RNA were increased by conjugation of PMO to R9F2 peptide, likely accounting for the increased specific antisense activity of conjugated over nonconjugated PMO. A cell-culture based assay demonstrated that while conjugation to unnatural peptides increased PMO efficacy without causing nonspecificity at concentrations < or = 10 microM, only L-peptide conjugation retained high specificity at higher concentrations. This study demonstrates that conjugation of PMO to an arginine-rich peptide generally increases the binding affinity of the PMO to complementary RNA and increases its antisense potency. Additionally, it is shown that the enzymatic stability of an L- or unnatural peptide used for PMO conjugation affects the antisense properties of the resulting compound.