BACKGROUND Particulates incorporating DNA are promising vehicles for gene delivery, with the ability to protect DNA and provide for controlled, localized, and sustained release and transfection. Zein, a hydrophobic protein from corn, is biocompatible and has properties that make it a promising candidate material for particulate delivery, including its ability to form nanospheres through coacervation and its insolubility under physiological conditions, making it capable of sustained release of encapsulated compounds. Due to the promise of this natural biomaterial for drug delivery, the objective of this study was to formulate zein nanospheres encapsulating DNA as the therapeutic compound, and to characterize size, charge, sustained release, cell cytotoxicity and cellular internalization of these particles. RESULTS Zein nanospheres encapsulating DNA were fabricated using a coacervation technique, without the use of harsh solvents or temperatures, resulting in the preservation of DNA integrity and particles with diameters that ranged from 157.8 ± 3.9 nm to 396.8 ± 16.1 nm, depending on zein to DNA ratio. DNA encapsulation efficiencies were maximized to 65.3 ± 1.9% with a maximum loading of 6.1 ± 0.2 mg DNA/g zein. The spheres protected encapsulated DNA from DNase I degradation and exhibited sustained plasmid release for at least 7 days, with minimal burst during the initial phase of release. Zein/DNA nanospheres demonstrated robust biocompatibility, cellular association, and internalization. CONCLUSIONS This study represents the first report on the formation of zein particles encapsulating plasmid DNA, using simple fabrication techniques resulting in preservation of plasmid integrity and tunable sizes. DNA encapsulation efficiencies were maximized to acceptable levels at higher zein to DNA ratios, while loading was comparable to that of other hydrophilic compounds encapsulated in zein and that of DNA incorporated into PLGA nano- and microspheres. The hydrophobic nature of zein resulted in spheres capable of sustained release of plasmid DNA. Zein particles may be an excellent potential tool for the delivery of DNA with the ability to be fine-tuned for specific applications including oral gene delivery, intramuscular delivery, and in the fabrication of tissue engineering scaffolds.