Possession of P fimbriae, virulence-associated O and K antigens, haemolysin and aerobactin production, and susceptibility to 10 antimicrobial agents were studied in 63 Escherichia coli strains isolated from blood or CSF of infants who were grouped according to their clinical characteristics. These isolates were compared with 35 faecal E. coli strains from healthy infants. Individual virulence factors showed a relatively weak association with invasive infection except for P fimbriae in urosepsis and aerobactin production in meningitis. Combinations of factors were generally more predictive for defining virulent clones, particularly in infants defined as being at normal risk of developing septicaemia. Thus, 62% of isolates from such infants had characteristics typical of previously described uropathogenic or meningitis-associated clones of E. coli, compared with 32% of the isolates from high-risk infants (i.e., those defined as being at high risk of developing septicaemia) and only 9% of the faecal isolates (p less than 0.001 and less than 0.05, respectively). Overall, 45% of the episodes of invasive infection were caused by such clones, whereas risk factors (conditions considered to be associated with increased risk of invasive infection) were present in 59% of the infected infants (39% in meningitis and urosepsis, 78% in cryptogenic septicaemia and untreated bacteraemia). The results indicated that bacterial factors played a significant causative role in neonatal meningitis and urosepsis, particularly in normal-risk infants, whereas predisposing host factors contributed greatly to cryptogenic septicaemia and untreated bacteraemia.