The efficient delivery of nucleic acids into mammalian cells is a central aspect of cell biology and of medical applications, including cancer therapy and tissue engineering. Non-viral chemical methods have been received with great interest for transfecting cells. However, further development of nanocarriers that are biocompatible, efficient and suitable for clinical applications is still required. In this paper, the different material platforms for gene delivery are comparatively addressed, and the mechanisms of interaction with biological systems are discussed carefully. © 2012 IOP Publishing Ltd.