Salmonella strains have evolved to infect a wide variety of reptiles, birds, and mammals resulting in many different syndromes ranging from colonization and chronic carriage to acute fatal disease. Adaptation to a large number of different evolutionary niches has undoubtedly driven the high degree of phenotypic and genotypic diversity in Salmonella strains. Differences in LPS and flagellar structure generate the antigenic variation that is reflected in the more than 2,000 known serotypes. Moreover, variations of LPS structure affect the virulence of the strain. The differential expression of various fimbriae by Salmonella is likely to be due to the wide variety of mucosal surfaces that are encountered by various strains, and the host immune response may select for a different expression pattern. As with these surface structures, a variety of other important virulence determinants show a variable distribution in Salmonella strains and also serve to delineate the divergence of the Salmonella lineage from E. coli. The acquisition of the SPI-1 region may have represented the defining genetic event in the separation of the Salmonella and E. coli lineages. The SPI-1 cell invasion function allowed Salmonella to establish a separate niche in epithelial cells. The mgtC locus on SPI-3 is also present in all lineages and facilitates the adaptation of the bacteria to the low Mg2+, low pH environment of the endosome that results from SPI-1-mediated invasion. Subsequent acquisition of SPI-2 allowed Salmonella to manipulate the sorting of the endosome or phagosome, altering the intracellular environment and facilitating bacterial growth within infected cells. The ability to disseminate from the bowel and establish extraintestinal niches is promoted by the spv locus. Since Salmonella proliferates within macrophages and must avoid phagocytosis by neutrophils to establish a systemic infection, the spv genes appear to promote the macrophage phase of the disease process. Here the polymorphism of the spv locus is clearly demonstrated, since the serovars that cause most cases of nontyphoid bacteremia contain the spv genes. The absence of the spv genes from S. typhi is particularly puzzling and is a strong indication that the pathogenesis of typhoid fever is fundamentally different from that of bacteremia due to nontyphoid Salmonella. There is currently no genetic explanation for the phenotype of host adaptation or for the finding that only a few serovars cause the majority of human infections. Based on recent findings that multiple individual virulence genes have a variable distribution in Salmonella, it is unlikely that a single locus will be found to be responsible for these complex biological traits. Instead, a complicated combination of genes are likely to contribute to the overall virulence phenotype.