Transfection is the process of deliberately introducing nucleic acids into cells. The term is used notably for non-viral methods in eukaryotic cells. It may also refer to other methods and cell types, although other terms are preferred: "transformation" is more often used to describe non-viral DNA transfer in bacteria, non-animal eukaryotic cells and plant cells.

Genetic material (such as supercoiled plasmid DNA or siRNA constructs), or even proteins such as antibodies, may be transfected.

Transfection of animal cells typically involves opening transient pores or "holes" in the cell membrane, to allow the uptake of material. Transfection can be carried out using calcium phosphate, by electroporation, or by mixing a cationic lipid with the material to produce liposomes, which fuse with the cell membrane and deposit their cargo inside.

Transfection can result in unexpected morphologies and abnormalities in target cells. For most applications of transfection, it is sufficient if the transfected genetic material is only transiently expressed. Since the DNA introduced in the transfection process is usually not integrated into the nuclear genome, the foreign DNA will be diluted through mitosis or degraded.

If it is desired that the transfected gene actually remains in the genome of the cell and its daughter cells, a stable transfection must occur. To accomplish this, a marker gene is co-transfected, which gives the cell some selectable advantage, such as resistance towards a certain toxin.

Some (very few) of the transfected cells will, by chance, have integrated the foreign genetic material into their genome. If the toxin is then added to the cell culture, only those few cells with the marker gene integrated into their genomes will be able to proliferate, while other cells will die. After applying this selective stress (selection pressure) for some time, only the cells with a stable transfection remain and can be cultivated further.

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