The mosaic-structured Vibrio cholerae genome points to the importance of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) in the evolution of this human pathogen. We showed that V. cholerae can acquire new genetic material by natural transformation during growth on chitin, a biopolymer that is abundant in aquatic habitats (e.g., from crustacean exoskeletons), where it lives as an autochthonous microbe. Transformation competence was found to require a type IV pilus assembly complex, a putative DNA binding protein, and three convergent regulatory cascades, which are activated by chitin, increasing cell density, and nutrient limitation, a decline in growth rate, or stress.