Chromosomal DNA from 23 closely related, pathogenic strains of Escherichia coli was digested and probed for the insertion sequences IS1, IS2, IS4, IS5, and IS30. Under the assumption that elements residing in DNA restriction fragments of the same apparent length are identical by descent, parsimony analysis of these characters yielded a unique phylogenetic tree. This analysis not only distinguished among bacterial strains that were otherwise identical in their biochemical characteristics and enzyme electrophoretic mobilities, but certain aspects of the topology of the tree were consistent across several unrelated insertion elements. The distribution of IS elements was then reexamined in light of the inferred phylogenetic relationships to investigate the biological properties of the elements, such as rates of insertion and deletion, and to discover apparent recombinational events. The analysis shows that the pattern of distribution of insertion elements in the bacterial genome is sufficiently stable for epidemiological studies. Although the rate of recombination by conjugation has been postulated to be low, at least two such events appear to have taken place.