Bacterial conjugation is the often regarded as the bacterial equivalent of sexual reproduction or mating; however it is not actually sexual as it does not involve the fusing of gametes and the creation of a zygote, it is merely the exchange of genetic information. In order to perform conjugation, one of the bacteria has to carry an F-plasmid, the other one must not.
The F-plasmid (also called F-factor) is an episome (a plasmid that can integrate itself into the bacterial chromosome by genetic recombination) of about 100 kb (kilo base pairs) length. It carries its own origin of replication, called oriV. There can only be one copy of the F-plasmid in a bacterium (which is then called F-positive), either free or integrated.
Among other genetic information, the F-plasmid carries a tra and a trb locus, which together are about 33 kb long and consist of about 40 genes. The tra locus includes the pilin gene and controlling genes, which together form pili on the cell surface, polymeric proteins that can attach themselves to the surface of F-negative bacteria and initiate the mating. The pili themselves do not seem to be the structures through which the actual exchange of DNA takes place; rather, some proteins coded in the tra or trb loci seem to open a channel between the bacteria.
The transfer of DNA always runs from the F-positive towards the F-negative bacterium.