We have developed a model system to assess the influence of earthworm activity on the transfer of plasmid pJP4 from an inoculated donor bacterium, Pseudomonas fluorescens C5t (pJP4), to indigenous soil microorganisms. Three different earthworm species (Lumbricus terrestris, Lumbricus rubellus, and Aporrectodea trapezoides), each with unique burrowing, casting, and feeding behaviors, were evaluated. Soil columns were inoculated on the surface with 108 cells per g of soil of the donor bacterium, and after a 2-week incubation period, donor, transconjugant, and total bacteria were enumerated at 5-cm-depth intervals. Transconjugants were confirmed by use of colony hybridization with a mer gene probe. In situ gene transfer of plasmid pJP4 from P. fluorescens C5t to indigenous soil bacteria was detected in all inoculated microcosms. In the absence of earthworms, the depth of recovery was limited to the top 5 cm of the column, with approximately 103 transconjugants per g of soil. However, the total number of transconjugants recovered from soil was significantly greater in microcosms containing either L. rubellus or A. trapezoides, with levels reaching about 105 CFU/g of soil. In addition, earthworms distributed donor and transconjugant bacteria throughout the microcosm columns, with the depth of recovery dependent on the burrowing behavior of each earthworm species. Donor and transconjugant bacteria were also recovered from earthworm casts and inside developing cocoons. Transconjugant bacteria from the indigenous soil microflora were classified as belonging to Acidovorax spp., Acinetobacter spp., Agrobacterium spp., Pasteurella spp., Pseudomonas spp., and Xanthomonas spp.