The effect of inoculum size on population lag times of Listeria monocytogenes was investigated using the Bioscreen automated microtitre plate incubator and reader. Under optimum conditions, lag times were little affected by inoculum size and there was little variation between replicate inocula even at very low cell numbers. However, in media containing inhibitory concentrations of NaCl, both the mean lag time and variation between replicate inocula increased as the inoculum size became smaller. The variation in lag time of cells within a population was investigated in more detail by measuring the distribution of detection times from 64 replicate inocula containing only one or two cells capable of initiating growth. The variance of the lag time distribution increased with increasing salt concentration and was greater in exponential than in stationary phase inocula. The number of cells required to initiate growth increased from one cell under optimum conditions to 10(5) cells in medium with 1.8 M NaCl. The addition of spent medium from a stationary phase culture reduced the variance and decreased lag times. The ability to initiate growth under severe salt stress appears to depend on the presence of a resistant sub-fraction of the population, although high cell densities assist adaptation of those resistant cells to the unfavourable growth conditions by some unspecified medium conditioning effect. These results are relevant to the prediction of lag times and probability of growth from low numbers of stressed cells in food.