Objective. To assess the abilities of various vectors to transfer genes to the synovial lining of joints. Methods. Vectors derived from retrovirus, adenovirus, and herpes simplex virus as well as cationic liposomes and naked plasmid DNA were evaluated. Each construct contained the lac Z marker gene; and one retroviral construct, and one plasmid also contained a gene encoding human interleukin-1 receptor antagonist. Gene expression was under the control of the human cytomegalovirus promoter in all vectors except the retrovirus, where the endogenous 5' long terminal repeat was retained as the promoter. Cultures of rabbit synovial fibroblasts were exposed to these vectors and stained with X-gal to identify lac Z+ cells. Vectors were then injected directly into rabbits' knee joints, and gene transfer and expression were assessed by X-gal staining and polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Results. Adenovirus was a highly effective vector both in vitro and in vivo, with lac Z gene expression persisting for at least 28 days. However, an inflammatory response was noted in vivo. Cells infected in vitro and in vivo with herpes simplex virus also expressed the lac Z gene at high levels, but expression was limited by cytotoxicity. Retroviruses, in contrast, were effective only under in vitro conditions, permitting cell division. Liposomes gave variable in vitro results; when injected into joints in vivo, gene expression was low and was detectable for only a few days, even though a PCR signal persisted for at least 28 days. Unexpectedly, plasmid DNA was captured by the synoviocytes and expressed transiently following intraarticular injection. Conclusion. None of the vectors was ideal for in vivo gene delivery to synovium, although adenovirus was clearly the most effective of those tested. Retroviruses, although poor vectors for in vivo gene delivery, are well suited for ex vivo gene transfer to the synovial lining of joints.