The distribution of the Escherichia coli attaching and effacing (eae) gene in strains of verotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC) isolated from cattle and humans was studied. The majority of strains isolated from humans with bloody diarrhoea or HUS and cattle with severe diarrhoea were eae positive (82 and 83% respectively). In contrast, 59% of VTEC isolated from asymptomatic cattle were eae negative and of the remaining 41% that were eae positive, the majority were serotype O157. H7. The nucleotide sequence of the 3' end of the eae gene of enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC) of serotype O55. H7 was found to be almost identical to that of serotype O157. H7. Specific primers are described which detect the eae sequences of VTEC serotypes O157. H7, O157. H-, and EPEC serotypes O55. H7 and O55. H-. The nucleotide sequence of the 3' end of the eae gene of serotype O111. H8 differed significantly from that of O157. H7. Primers were developed to specifically identify the eae sequences of VTEC serotypes O111. H- and O111. H8. We conclude that whereas the majority of VTEC associated with disease in cattle and humans possess the eae gene, the gene itself may not be necessary to produce haemorrhagic colitis and HUS. Sequence heterogeneity in the 3' end of eae alleles of VTEC permits specific identification of subsets of these organisms.