Vibrio cholerae, the causative agent of cholera, is a natural inhabitant of the aquatic ecosystem. We examined a unique collection of V. cholerae clinical and environmental isolates of widespread geographic distribution recovered over a 60-year period to determine their evolutionary genetic relationships based on analysis of two housekeeping genes, malate dehydrogenase (mdh) and a chaperonin (groEL). In addition, the phylogenetic distribution of 12 regions associated with virulence was determined. Comparative sequence analysis of mdh revealed that all V. cholerae O1 and O139 serogroup isolates belonged to the same clonal lineage. Single-strand conformational polymorphism (SSCP) analysis of these O1 and O139 strains at groEL confirmed the presence of an epidemic clonal complex. Of the 12 virulence regions examined, only three regions, Vibrio seventh pandemic island 1 (VSP-I), VSP-II, and RS1, were absent from all classical V. cholerae isolates. Most V. cholerae El Tor biotype and O139 serogroup isolates examined encoded all 12 virulence regions assayed. Outside of V. cholerae O1/O139 serogroup isolates, only one strain, VO7, contained VSP-I. Two V. cholerae El Tor isolates, GP155 and 2164-78, lacked both VSP-I and VSP-II, and one El Tor isolate, GP43, lacked VSP-II. Five non-O1/non-O139 serogroup isolates had an mdh sequence identical to that of the epidemic O1 and O139 strains. These isolates, similar to classical strains, lack both VSP-I and VSP-II. Four of the 12 virulence regions examined were found to be present in all isolates: hlyA, pilE, MSHA and RTX. Among non-O1/non-O139 isolates, however, the occurrence of the additional eight regions was considerably lower. The evolutionary relationships and multilocus virulence gene profiles of V. cholerae natural isolates indicate that consecutive pandemic strains arose from a common O1 serogroup progenitor through the successive acquisition of new virulence regions.