As a consequence of sequential replacements by clones of higher fitness (periodic selection), bacterial populations would be continually purged of genetic variability, and the fate of selectively neutral alleles in very large populations of bacteria would be similar to that in demes of sexually reproducing organisms with small genetically effective population sizes. The significance of periodic selection in reducing genetic variability in these clonally reproducing species is dependent on the amount of genetic exchange between clones (recombination). In an effort to determine the relationship between the rates of periodic selection, recombination and the genetically effective sizes of bacterial populations, a model for periodic selection and infectious gene exchange has been developed and its properties analyzed. It shows that, for a given periodic selection regime, genetically effective population size increases exponentially with the rate of recombination.--With the parameters of this model in the range anticipated for natural populations of E. coli, the purging effects of periodic selection on genetic variability are significant; individual populations or lineages of this bacterial species would have very small genetically effective population sizes.--Based on this result, some other a priori considerations and a review of the results of epidemiological and genetic variability studies, it is postulated that E. coli is composed of a relatively limited number of geographically widespread and genetically nearly isolated and monomorphic lineages. The implications of these considerations of the genetic structure of E. coli populations on the interpretation of protein variation and the neutral gene hypothesis are discussed.