Linear plasmids and chromosomes were unknown in prokaryotes until recently but have now been found in spirochaetes, Gram‐positive bacteria, and Gram‐negative bacteria. Two structural types of bacterial linear DNA have been characterized. Linear plasmids of the spirochaete Borrelia have a covalently closed hairpin loop at each end and linear plasmids of the Gram‐positive filamentous Streptomyces have a covalently attached protein at each end. Replicons with similar structures are more frequent in eukaryotic cells than in prokaryotes. Linear genomic structures are probably more common in bacteria than previously recognized, however, and some replicons may interconvert between circular and linear isomers. The molecular biology of these widely dispersed elements provides clues to explain the origin of linear DNA in bacteria, including evidence for genetic exchange between prokaryotes and eukaryotes.