Genomic DNAs prepared from 168 isolates of Escherichia coli O157:H7 were analyzed for restriction fragment length polymorphisms on Southern blots probed with bacteriophage lambda DNA. The isolates analyzed included strains from a recent large multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infection associated with consumption of poorly cooked beef in restaurants, a day-care center cluster, and temporally and geographically unrelated isolates. E. coli O157:H7 isolates recovered from the incriminated meat and from 61 (96.8%) of 63 patients from Washington and Nevada possessed identical lambda restriction fragment length patterns. The lambda restriction fragment length polymorphisms observed in 11 (91.7%) of 12 day-care center patients were identical, but they differed from that of the strain associated with the multistate outbreak. E. coli O157:H7 from 42 patients temporally or geographically unrelated to either cluster of infection possessed unique and different lambda restriction fragment length patterns, except for paired isolates from three separate clusters of infection. These data demonstrate that the hybridization of DNA digests of E. coli O157:H7 with radiolabelled bacteriophage lambda DNA can be a useful, stable, and discriminatory epidemiologic tool for analyzing the linkage between strains of E. coli O157:H7.