Enteroaggregative Escherichia coli (EAggEC) have been associated with persistent diarrhea in young children, but little is known about its pathogenesis. We assayed for enterotoxic activity in culture filtrates (CF) of EAggEC strains in Ussing chambers mounted with rabbit ileal mucosa. CF from strain 17-2, a prototype Chilean EAggEC strain, caused a greater rise in potential difference and short circuit current (SCC) than that seen in HB101 control, and this effect was abolished by protease pretreatment and partially stable after heat treatment. Ultrafiltration of 17-2 CF preparations localized the active moiety to the 2-5 kD Mr size range. CF from HB101 transformed with the 17-2 plasmid showed Ussing chamber activity. less than 10-kD CF fractions from five of six other EAggEC strains screened in Ussing chambers gave SCC responses of similar magnitude to 17-2. The 17-2 CF activity was not neutralized after pretreatment with polyclonal anti-STa antibody. Additionally, all of the seven EAggEC strains studied were nonreactive by heat-stable enterotoxin variant STa ELISA, were negative in the suckling mouse assay, and failed to hybridize with heat-stable enterotoxin variant STh and STp DNA probes. In summary, our data indicate that 17-2 produces a low molecular weight, partially heat-stable, protease-sensitive enterotoxin which appears to be plasmid associated, and genetically and immunologically distinct from E. coli STa. Preliminary screening suggests that this tox+ phenotype may be common among EAggEC.