A reversible adaptive tolerance to low pH termed 'acid habituation' is demonstrated for five strains of Escherichia coli. Superimposed upon the intrinsic acid tolerance of individual strains, acid habituation significantly enhances the survival of exponential phase cultures exposed to a lethal acid challenge (pH 3.0), and minimises inter-strain variability in acid tolerance. The fatty acid composition of acid habituated, non-habituated, and de-habituated exponential phase cultures is also reported. During acid habituation, monounsaturated fatty acids (16:1 omega 7c and 18:1 omega 7c) present in the phospholipids of E. coli are either converted to their cyclopropane derivatives (cy17:0 and cy19:0), or replaced by saturated fatty acids. The acid tolerance of individual strains of E. coli appears to be correlated with membrane cyclopropane fatty acid content and, thus, it is postulated that increased levels of cyclopropane fatty acids may enhance the survival of microbial cells exposed to low pH. The results presented illustrate the remarkable capacity of E. coli to adapt to environmental challenges, and have significant implications for the survival of spoilage and pathogenic bacteria, and hence for food safety.