Escherichia coli is a remarkable and diverse organism. This normally harmless commensal needs only to acquire a combination of mobile genetic elements to become a highly adapted pathogen capable of causing a range of diseases, from gastroenteritis to extraintestinal infections of the urinary tract, bloodstream and central nervous system. The worldwide burden of these diseases is staggering, with hundreds of millions of people affected annually. Eight E. coli pathovars have been well characterized, and each uses a large arsenal of virulence factors to subvert host cellular functions to potentiate its virulence. In this Review, we focus on the recent advances in our understanding of the different pathogenic mechanisms that are used by various E. coli pathovars and how they cause disease in humans.