Evidence concerning the significance of recombination within natural bacterial populations has historically come from two main sources: multilocus enzyme electrophoresis (MLEE) and nucleotide sequence data. Here we discuss evidence from a third method, multilocus sequence typing (MLST), which is a development of MLEE based on nucleotide sequencing that combines the advantages of both approaches. MLST has confirmed both the existence of clones and the high rates of recombination for several bacterial pathogens. The data are consistent with "epidemic" population structures, where clones are superimposed upon a backdrop of frequent recombination, thus, in the short term, resisting the homogenising effect of recombination. The nature of the selective advantage of clones, however, and how this advantage relates to virulence are unclear. The current evidence also has broader implications concerning bacterial species definition, the management of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the assessment of the dangers of releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment.