Analysis of the Escherichia coli population by multilocus enzyme electrophoresis (MLEE) has established its clonal organization, but there is increasing evidence that horizontal DNA transfer occurs in E. coli. We have assessed the genetic structure of the species E. coli and determined the extent to which recombination can affect the clonal structure of bacteria. A panel of 72 E. coli strains from the ECOR collection was characterized by random amplified polymorphic DNA (RAPD) and restriction-fragment-length polymorphism (RFLP) of the ribosomal RNA gene (rrn) regions. These strains have been characterized by MLEE and are assumed to reflect the range of genotypic variation in the species as a whole. Statistical analysis, including factorial analysis of correspondence (FAC) and hierarchical classifications, established that the data obtained with the three genetic markers are mutually corroborative, thus providing compelling evidence that horizontal transfer does not disrupt the clonal organization of the population. However, there is a gradient of correlation between the different classifications which ranges from the highly clonal structure of B2 group strains causing extraintestinal infections in humans to the less-stringent structure of B1 group strains that came mainly from nonprimate mammals. This group (B1) appears to be the framework from which the remaining non-A group strains have emerged. These results indicate that RAPD analysis is well suited to intraspecies characterization of E. coli. Lastly, treating the RAPD data by FAC allowed description of subgroup-specific DNA fragments which can be used, in a strategy comparable to positional cloning, to isolate virulence genes.