The role of type 1 pili and P adhesins during the in vivo growth of Escherichia coli inoculated into the urethras of BALB/c mice was studied. Strains which produced type 1 pili when grown in broth but lost this trait when grown on agar (regulated variants) were tested. Broth-grown organisms colonized the bladder of every animal tested, with counts of 10(3) to 10(4) viable organisms recovered from bladder homogenates. Agar-grown organisms gave lower rates of infection and the number of viable organisms recovered from bladders was significantly reduced. The degree of inoculum piliation influenced bladder colonization in a direct way: as piliation increased, the number of bacteria recovered from bladders also increased. After intraurethral inoculation, all of the bladders and 44% of the kidneys were colonized on day 1, and by day 5, 94% of the bladders and 16% of the kidneys were positive. Hemagglutination titers remained high for the bladder isolates, but the organisms colonizing the kidneys became significantly less piliated with time. Bacteriuria was unrelated to bladder or renal colonization. Strains that demonstrated random phase variation of type 1 pili during growth on agar produced similar colonizations of the urinary tract with broth- and agar-grown inocula. Strains that produced only P adhesins were less effective in colonizing the urinary tract than were type 1 piliated organisms. Other strains which did not produce pili only minimally colonized the bladder. The results suggest that type 1 pili play an essential role in ascending infections of the urinary tract.