The ribosomal RNA multigene family in Escherichia coli comprises seven rrn operons of similar, but not identical, sequence. Four operons (rrnC, B, G, and E) contain genes in the 16S-23S intergenic spacer region (ISR) for tRNA(Glu-2) and three (rrnA, D, and H) contain genes for tRNA(Ile-1) and tRNA(Ala-1B). To increase our understanding of their molecular evolution, we have determined the ISR sequence of the seven operons in a set of 12 strains from the ECOR collection. Each operon was specifically amplified using polymerase chain reaction primers designed from genes or open reading frames located upstream of the 16S rRNA genes in E. coli K12. With a single exception (ECOR 40), ISRs containing one or two tRNA genes were found at the same respective loci as those of strain K12. Intercistronic heterogeneity already found in K12 was representative of most variation among the strains studied and the location of polymorphic sites was the same. Dispersed nucleotide substitutions were very few but 21 variable sites were found grouped in a stem-loop, although the secondary structure was conserved. Some regions were found in which a stretch of nucleotides was substituted in block by one alternative, apparently unrelated, sequence (as illustrated by the known putative insertion of rsl in K12). Except for substitutions of different sizes and insertions/deletions found in the ISR, the pattern of nucleotide variation is very similar to that found for the 16S rRNA gene in E. coli. Strains K12 and ECOR 40 showed the highest intercistronic heterogeneity. Most strains showed a strong tendency to homogenization. Concerted evolution could explain the notorious conservation of this region that is supposed to have low functional restrictions.