Escherichia coli strains bind to Gal alpha 1-4Gal-containing glycolipids via P pili-associated G-adhesins. Three functional classes of adhesins with different binding specificities are encoded by conserved G-alleles. We suggest that the Class I papG-allele of strain J96 is a novel acquisition possibly introduced via horizontal gene transfer into one of the two P pili gene clusters carried by this strain. Closely related strains in the ECOR collection of natural E. coli isolates carry either a Class II or a Class III G-adhesin. Data indicate that genetic exchanges involving either entire pap or prs gene clusters or individual pap/prs genes have occurred. We propose that the retention and spread of pap/prs DNA among E. coli is the result of selection pressure exerted by mammalian intestinal isoreceptors.