Escherichia coli (strain RDEC-1) adheres to M cells of rabbit Peyer's patch lymphoid follicle epithelium. The RDEC-1 strain contains an 85 X 10(6) D plasmid that codes for pili, which, when purified, adhere to gut absorptive epithelium. This study compared the in vivo lymphoid follicle adherence of the RDEC-1 strain with that of a Shigella flexneri (ShD15) that contained the 85 X 10(6) D plasmid and expressed the RDEC-1 pili, a control E. coli, and a control S. flexneri (ShD12). The bacteria were given in a dose of 10(10) to 0.7-1.1 kg rabbits. The rabbits were sacrificed at 2, 4, 6, and 12 h postinoculation. Peyer's patch tissue was examined by electronmicroscopy and direct fluorescence microscopy. The piliated ShD15 and RDEC-1 bacteria adhered in large numbers at 2 and 4 h postinoculation, but only the RDEC-1 strain persisted and increased in numbers past that time. Control strains did not adhere. The ShD15 strain adhered to and was rapidly taken into M cells, precipitating an acute inflammatory reaction within the follicle and adjacent lumen. Initial lymphoid follicle M cell adherence of the ShD15 strain was associated with the possession of the adherence pilus plasmid. The failure of the ShD15 strain to survive and colonize the lymph follicle epithelium contrasts with the success of the RDEC-1 strain and indicates that the RDEC-1 strain possesses virulence factors in addition to pili.