Nineteen isolates of Klebsiella oxytoca were examined, representing 18 distinct strains. All were from a 1994 survey of resistance amongst klebsiellae in intensive care units in Europe, and all had reduced susceptibility, or were resistant, to cefuroxime, ceftriaxone and aztreonam, suggesting hyperproduction of the chromosomal K1 beta-lactamase. We sought to confirm this mechanism and to identify why the levels of resistance varied between isolates. Possible reasons for variation were differences in the quantity or subtype of the K1 enzyme or differences in this enzyme's interplay with permeability. Spectrophotometric assays showed that all 19 isolates had K1-like beta-lactamases and that these were present at > or = 15-fold higher levels than in beta-lactam-sensitive K. oxytoca isolates. Fourteen of the 19 isolates had the OXY-2 form of K1 enzyme, while the remaining five had the OXY-1 form, as determined by isoelectric focusing and PCR amplification. Most isolates with the OXY-2 enzyme were more resistant than those with the OXY-1 subtype, but this difference partly reflected enzyme quantity rather than subtype. More generally, and irrespective of enzyme subtype, levels of resistance were broadly related to beta-lactamase specific activity, and the degree of hyperproduction was a major determinant of the level of resistance. Nevertheless, other factors had a role too: several isolates had reduced susceptibility or were resistant to cefoxitin, which is not a substrate for K1 enzyme, and examination of outer membrane protein profiles revealed considerable strain-to-strain diversity in the molecular weight range typical of the major enterobacterial porins (40-48 kDa).