Most gene transfer studies have been performed with relatively homogeneous soil systems in the absence of soil macrobiota, including invertebrates. In this study we examined the influence of earthworm activity (burrowing, casting, and feeding) on transfer of plasmid pJP4 between spatially separated donor (Alcaligenes eutrophus) and recipient (Pseudomonas fluorescens) bacteria in nonsterile soil columns. A model system was designed such that the activity of earthworms would act to mediate cell contact and gene transfer. Three different earthworm species (Aporrectodea trapezoides, Lumbricus rubellus, and Lumbricus terrestris), representing each of the major ecological categories (endogeic, epigeic, and anecic), were evaluated. Inoculated soil microcosms, with and without added earthworms, were analyzed for donor, recipient, and transconjugant bacteria at 5-cm-depth intervals by using selective plating techniques. Transconjugants were confirmed by colony hybridization with a trier gene probe. The presence of earthworms significantly increased dispersal of the donor and recipient strains. In situ gene transfer of plasmif pJP4 from A. eutrophus to P. fluorescens was detected only in earthworm-containing microcosms, at a frequency of ~102 transconjugants per g of soil. The depth of recovery was dependent on the burrowing behavior of each earthworm species; however, there was no significant difference in the total number of transconjugants among the earthworm species. Donor and recipient bacteria were recovered from earthworm fetes (casts) of all three earthworm species, with numbers up to 106 and 104 bacteria per g of cast, respectively. A. trapezoides egg capsules (cocoons) formed in the inoculated soil microcosms contained up to 107 donor and 106 recipient bacteria per g of cocoon. No transconjugant bacteria, however, were recovered from these microhabitats. To our knowledge, this is the first report of gene transfer between physically isolated bacteria in nonsterile soil, using burrowing earthworms as a biological factor to facilitate cell-to-cell contact.