One common feature of all plasmids is a specific sequence of nucleotides termed an origin of replication (ori). This sequence, together with other regulatory sequences, is referred to as a replicon. The replicon allows a plasmid to replicate within a host cell independently of the host cell's own replication cycle. If the plasmid makes many copies of itself per cell, it is termed a "relaxed" plasmid. If it maintains itself in fewer numbers within the cell it is termed a "stringent" plasmid. Two different plasmids can coexist in the same cell only if they share the same replication elements. If they do not, they will be unable to be propagated stably in the same cell line, and are termed incompatible.
In nature, plasmid inheritance can occur through a variety of mechanisms. During conjugation between two bacterial strains, plasmids can be transferred along with the bacterial DNA, and this activity is controlled by a set of transfer (tra) genes that are located on the plasmid and not on the bacterial chromosome. The proteins produced by these transfer genes bind to the DNA at the ori site to form a DNA-protein complex known as a relaxosome. This complex makes a nick, or break, in one of the two strands of the double-stranded plasmid DNA molecule. The place where this break occurs is called the "nic" site, and the nicked DNA is said to be "relaxed" because the DNA unwinds as a result of the nick in one of the strands. The single-stranded DNA that is generated by the nick is thought to be unwound and transferred through the pilus, or mating bridge, that connects the two bacteria entering the recipient bacteria. The other strand is left in the donor bacteria. It acts as a template for the synthesis of a new complementary DNA strand forming a double-stranded plasmid DNA molecule.
Some nonconjugative plasmids can also be transferred into bacteria by means of a process called mobilization, as long as they carry the necessary (mob) genes. Others are taken up by bacterial cells during the process known as transformation. Finally, plasmids that exist in a host cell that undergoes fission (cell division) are simply divided between the resultant two daughter cells.