A genetic transformation system with similarities to those reported for gram-negative bacteria was found to be associated with membrane vesicles of the ruminal cellulolytic genus Ruminococcus. Double-stranded DNA was recovered from the subcellular particulate fraction of all the cellulolytic ruminococci examined. Electron microscopy revealed that the only particles present resembled membrane vesicles. The likelihood that the DNA was associated with membrane vesicles (also known to contain cellulosomes) was further supported by the adherence of the particles associated with the subcellular DNA to cellulose powder added to culture filtrates. The particle-associated DNA comprised a population of linear molecules ranging in size from <20 kb to 49 kb (Ruminococcus sp. strain YE73) and from 23 kb to 90 kb (Ruminococcus albus AR67). Particle-associated DNA from R. albus AR67 represented DNA derived from genomic DNA of the host bacterium having an almost identical HindIII digestion pattern and an identical 16S rRNA gene. Paradoxically, particle-associated DNA was refractory to digestion with EcoRI, while the genomic DNA was susceptible to extensive digestion, suggesting that there is differential restriction modification of genomic DNA and DNA exported from the cell. Transformation using the vesicle-containing fraction of culture supernatant of Ruminococcus sp. strain YE71 was able to restore the ability to degrade crystalline cellulose to two mutants that were otherwise unable to do so. The ability was heritable and transferred to subsequent generations. It appears that membrane-associated transformation plays a role in lateral gene transfer in complex microbial ecosystems, such as the rumen.