We have analyzed what phylogenetic signal can be derived by small subunit rRNA comparison for bacteria of different but closely related genera (enterobacteria) and for different species or strains within a single genus (Escherichia or Salmonella), and finally how similar are the ribosomal operons within a single organism (Escherichia coli). These sequences have been analyzed by neighbor-joining, maximum likelihood, and parsimony. The robustness of each topology was assessed by bootstrap. Sequences were obtained for the seven rrn operons of E. coli strain PK3. These data demonstrated differences located in three highly variable domains. Their nature and localization suggest that since the divergence of E. coli and Salmonella typhimurium, most point mutations that occurred within each gene have been propagated among the gene family by conversions involving short domains, and that homogenization by conversions may not have affected the entire sequence of each gene. We show that the differences that exist between the different operons are ignored when sequences are obtained either after cloning of a single operon or directly from polymerase chain reaction (PCR) products. Direct sequencing of PCR products produces a mean sequence in which mutations present in the most variable domains become hidden. Cloning a single operon results in a sequence that differs from that of the other operons and of the mean sequence by several point mutations. For identification of unknown bacteria at the species level or below, a mean sequence or the sequence of a single nonidentified operon should therefore be avoided. Taking into account the seven operons and therefore mutations that accumulate in the most variable domains would perhaps increase tree resolution. However, if gene conversions that homogenize the rRNA multigene family are rare events, some nodes in phylogenetic trees will reflect these recombination events and these trees may therefore be gene trees rather than organismal trees.