Recent development of vectors and methodologies to introduce recombinant DNA into members of the genus Mycobacterium has provided new approaches for investigating these important bacteria. While most pathogenic mycobacteria are slow-growing, Mycobacterium smegmatis is a fast-growing, non-pathogenic species that has been used for many years as a host for mycobacteriophage propagation and, recently, as a host for the introduction of recombinant DNA. Its use as a cloning host for the analysis of mycobacterial genes has been limited by its inability to be efficiently transformed with plasmid vectors. This work describes the isolation and characterization of mutants of M. smegmatis that can be transformed, using electroporation, at efficiencies 10(4) to 10(5) times greater than those of the parent strain, yielding more than 10(5) transformants per microgram of plasmid DNA. The mutations conferring this efficient plasmid transformation (Ept) phenotype do not affect phage transfection or the integration of DNA into the M. smegmatis chromosome, but seem to be specific for plasmid transformation. Such Ept mutants have been used to characterize plasmid DNA sequences essential for replication of the Mycobacterium fortuitum plasmid pAL5000 in mycobacteria by permitting the transformation of a library of hybrid plasmid constructs. Efficient plasmid transformation of M. smegmatis will facilitate the analysis of mycobacterial gene function, expression and replication and thus aid in the development of BCG as a multivalent recombinant vaccine vector and in the genetic analysis of the virulence determinants of pathogenic mycobacteria.