Lightning is nature’s own genetic engineer. By opening up pores in soil bacteria it allows them to pick up any stray DNA present, report Timothy Vogel, Pascal Simonet and their colleagues at the University of Lyon in France.

This hitherto unknown phenomenon might help explain why gene swapping is so common among bacteria.

Mild electric shocks are routinely used to genetically engineer bacteria in the lab, so Vogel and Simonet wondered whether lightning could have the same effect. Although it would kill bacteria near the point of contact, those further away would get a milder shock.

The researchers persuaded physicist colleagues to blast bacteria with artificial lightning. So far they have shown that two strains of the soil bacterium Pseudomonas – as well as a lab strain of E. coli – take up “bait” DNA when zapped by lightning.

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