The properties of fluorescein are substantially altered upon conjugation to nucleic acids, affecting not only the molar absorptivities and fluorescence quantum yields but also the protolytic equilibrium constant and fluorescence lifetimes. Around neutral pH, the fluorescein moiety is present as both mono- and dianion, and the pKa relating them is increased from 6.43 for free fluorescein to about 6.90 for fluorescein attached to both single- and double-stranded oligonucleotides of at least 12 bases/base pairs. This difference reflects the local electrostatic potential around the nucleic acid, which is calculated to -28 mV. The molar absorptivities and spectral responses of the conjugated fluorescein protolytic species are also determined, from which the concentrations of fluorescein-oligonucleotide conjugates can be calculated by assuming: epsilon 494 = 62000/[1 + 10-(pH-6.90)] + 12000/[1 + 10(pH-6.90)] (M-1 cm-1). The fluorescence quantum yield of the conjugates depends, in a complex way, on temperature, environment and oligonucleotide length, sequence and conformation, and must be determined for each experimental situation.