Escherichia coli is an excellent model for studying the evolution of pathogenicity since within one species various genes can be found in pathogenic islands and plasmids causing a wide spectrum of virulence. A collection of 122 strains from different human and wild mammal hosts were analysed by PCR and Southern hybridization for the presence of a subset of the genes included in the LEE (locus of enterocyte effacement). In the PCR analysis, two markers (cesT/eae and espB genes) were found together in more strains (25.4%) than either were found alone. The cesT/eae gene was less frequently found alone (8.2%) than was the espB gene (15.6%). Four regions of the LEE were analysed in a subsample of 25 strains using Southern hybridization. The four regions were all present (44%), all absent (12%) or present in different combinations (44%) in a given strain. The flanking regions of the LEE showed the highest rate of hybridization (in 72% of the strains). The results indicate that the LEE is a dynamic genetic entity, both the complete gene cluster and the individual genes. The genes that comprise this locus seem to be horizontally acquired (or lost) in an independent way and may control other functions in non-pathogenic E. coli lineages. In this way, horizontal transfer may allow the gradual stepwise construction of gene cassettes facilitating coordinate regulation and expression of novel functions.