Caenorhabditis elegans was studied to determine the potential role of free-living microbivorous nematodes as vectors for preharvest contamination of fruits and vegetables with foodborne pathogens. The propensity of C. elegans to be attracted to seven strains of Escherichia coli O157:H7, eight serotypes of Salmonella, six strains of Listeria monocytogenes, and cantaloupe juice was investigated. Twenty to 30 adult worms were placed on the surface of K agar midway between a 24-h bacterial colony and 10 microl of uninoculated tryptic soy broth (TSB) or cantaloupe juice positioned 1.5 cm apart. The numbers of nematodes that migrated to the colony, to the TSB, and to the cantaloupe juice within 5, 10, 15, and 20 min at 21 degrees C were determined, and then the plates were incubated at 37 degrees C for up to 7 days to determine the ability of C. elegans to survive and reproduce in bacterial colonies. The nematode was attracted to colonies of all test pathogens and survived and reproduced within colonies for up to 7 days. C. elegans was not attracted to cantaloupe juice. The potential of C. elegans to serve as a vector for the transport of Salmonella Poona to cantaloupe rinds was investigated. Adult worms that had been immersed in a suspension of Salmonella Poona were deposited 1 or 3 cm below the surface of soil on which a piece of cantaloupe rind was placed. The rind was analyzed for the presence of Salmonella Poona after 1, 3, 7, and 10 days at 21 degrees C. The presence of Salmonella Poona was evident more quickly on rinds positioned on soil beneath which C. elegans inoculated with Salmonella Poona was initially deposited than on rinds positioned on soil beneath which Salmonella Poona alone was deposited. The time required to detect Salmonella Poona on rinds was longer when the rind was placed 3 cm above the inoculum than when the rind was placed 1 cm above the inoculum. Free-living nematodes may play a role in the preharvest dispersal of incidental human pathogens in soil to the surfaces of raw fruits and vegetables in contact with soil during development and maturation, as evidenced by the behavior of C. elegans as a test model.