The widespread species Escherichia coli includes a broad variety of different types, ranging from highly pathogenic strains causing worldwide outbreaks of severe disease to avirulent isolates which are part of the normal intestinal flora or which are well characterized and safe laboratory strains. The pathogenicity of a given E. coli strain is mainly determined by specific virulence factors which include adhesins, invasins, toxins and capsule. They are often organized in large genetic blocks either on the chromosome ('pathogenicity islands'), on large plasmids or on phages and can be transmitted horizontally between strains. In this review we summarize the current knowledge of the virulence attributes which determine the pathogenic potential of E. coli strains and the methodology available to assess the virulence of E. coli isolates. We also focus on a recently developed procedure based on a broad-range detection system for E. coli-specific virulence genes that makes it possible to determine the potential pathogenicity and its nature in E. coli strains from various sources. This makes it possible to determine the pathotype of E. coli strains in medical diagnostics, to assess the virulence and health risks of E. coli contaminating water, food and the environment and to study potential reservoirs of virulence genes which might contribute to the emergence of new forms of pathogenic E. coli.