An intraspecies phylogenetic grouping of 168 human commensal Escherichia coli strains isolated from the stools of three geographically distinct human populations (France, Croatia, Mali) was generated by triplex PCR. The distributions of seven known extraintestinal virulence determinants (ibeA, pap, sfa/foc, afa, hly, cnf1, aer) were also determined by PCR. The data from the three populations were compiled, which showed that strains from phylogenetic groups A (40%) and B1 (34%) were the most common, followed by phylogenetic group D strains (15%). Strains of the phylogenetic group B2 were rare (11%). However, a significant specific distribution for strains of groups A, B1 and B2 within each population was observed, which may indicate the influence of (i) geographic/climatic conditions, (ii) dietary factors and/or the use of antibiotics or (iii) host genetic factors on the commensal flora. Virulence determinants were rarely detected, with only 25.6% of the strains harbouring at least one of the virulence genes tested. The strains with virulence factors most frequently belonged to phylogenetic group B2. The commensal strains of phylogenetic groups A, B1 and D had fewer virulence determinants than pathogenic strains of the corresponding groups when these data were compared with those for previous collections of virulent extraintestinal infection strains studied using the same approach. However, the virulence patterns of commensal and pathogenic B2 phylogenetic group strains were the same. The data thus suggest that strains of the A, B1 and D phylogenetic groups predominate in the gut flora and that these strains must acquire virulence factors to become pathogenic. In contrast, commensal phylogenetic group B2 strains are rare but appear to be potentially virulent.