A protocol was developed to study the dynamics of growth and plasmid transfer in surface populations of bacteria. This method allows for quantitative estimates of cell population densities over time, as well as microscopic observations of colony growth and interactions. Using this 'surface slide system' (SSS), the dynamics of the plasmid R1 and its permanently derepressed mutant R1drd19 in surface cultures of Escherichia coli K12 was examined. In surface culture, the stationary-phase cell densities were constant over a wide range of initial cell density (= colony density) and comparable to those obtained in liquid culture. For high initial cell densities, where the cells formed a confluent layer at stationary phase, the kinetics of growth and plasmid transfer was similar to that obtained in liquid culture, and the relative yields of R1drd19 and R1 transconjugants were similar in the two habitats. In surface culture, however, R1drd19 transconjugant yield was profoundly affected, and R1 transfer to a lesser extent, by colony density. In contrast, liquid matings were virtually unaffected by initial cell density. The transfer advantage of the permanently derepressed over the repressed plasmid was much less apparent for lower colony densities. I propose a hypothesis for plasmid transfer between colonies that explains these observations as a consequence of the geometry of the surface habitat and the effect of transitory derepression of the synthesis of pili.