Nuclear protein import is central to eukaryotic cell function. It is dependent on ATP, temperature and cytosolic factors, and requires specific targeting sequences called nuclear localization signals (NLSs). Nuclear import kinetics was studied in vitro using digitonin-permeabilized cells of the HTC rat hepatoma cell line and a fluorescently labelled β-galactosidase fusion protein carrying amino acids 111-135 of the simian virus 40 large T-antigen (T-ag), including the NLS. Nuclear accumulation was rapid, reaching steady-state after about 80 min at 37°C (t(1/2) at about 17 min). Surprisingly, maximal nuclear concentration was found to be directly proportional to the concentration of the cytosolic extract and of cytoplasmic T-ag protein. Neither preincubation of cells for 1 h at 37°C before the addition of T-ag protein nor the addition of fresh transport medium after 1 h and continuation of the incubation for another hour affected the maximal nuclear concentration. If cells were allowed to accumulate T-ag protein for 1 h before the addition of fresh transport medium containing different concentrations of T-ag protein and incubated for a further hour, the maximal nuclear concentration did not change unless the concentration of T-ag protein in the second transport mixture exceeded that in the first, in which case the nuclear concentration increased. Nuclear import of T-ag thus appeared (i) to be strictly unidirectional over 2 h at 37°C and (ii) to be regulated by an inhibitory feedback loop, whereby the cytosolic concentration of protein appears to determine directly the precise end point of nuclear accumulation. This study represents the first characterization of this previously undescribed mechanism of regulation of nuclear protein import.