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The most common method to transform plants is by soaking plant tissue in cultures of agrobacteria (this is not their current classification) which transfer DNA into the plants.

Is lateral gene transfer ability like this found a lot in nature? Is agrobacterium tumificans especially good at this or is its use in plant genetics only because this strain is well studied?

Is a method like this used for animal cells at all?

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An early report of conjugative transfer into mammalian cells (CHO cells) is:

Waters, VL (2001) Conjugation between bacterial and mammalian cells, Nat. Genet. 29: 375–376.

This work used the broad host range plasmid RK2 to mobilise shuttle vectors carrying selectable markers. To rule out transfection DNAse I was added (and in controls this was shown to block transfection by a large amount of vector DNA). In any case, the fact that the transfer of the vector required the presence of the mobilising plasmid is pretty strong evidence for a conjugative mechanism.

There is also more recent evidence for transfer into human cells via Type IV secretion systems: here is a recent example:

Fernandez-Gonzalez et al. (2011),Transfer of R388 Derivatives by a Pathogenesis-Associated Type IV Secretion System into both Bacteria and Human Cells. J Bacteriol 193: 6257-6265

And here is a recent review of the topic:

Llosa et al. (2012) New perspectives into bacterial DNA transfer to human cells Trends in Microbiology 20: 355-359.

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thanks, I wasn't aware of anything like this... –  MattDMo Feb 3 '13 at 2:07
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In animal cells the process is called transfection, to differentiate from transformation which is the process by which cells become immortalized (cancerous). I'm mainly familiar with mammalian cells, and in these systems some reaction is required to open pores of some sort in the cell membrane to allow the genetic material to enter. Viruses can mediate cellular entry on their own, but I am unaware of any method that uses live bacteria (although this doesn't mean that some specialized method doesn't exist).

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