To assess the role of aerobactin as a virulence factor among uropathogenic Escherichia coli, we determined the prevalence, location, and phenotypic expression of aerobactin determinants among 58 E. coli strains causing bactermic urinary tract infections. We correlated the presence of the aerobactin system with antimicrobial-agent resistance, the presence and phenotypic expression of other uropathogenic virulence factor determinants (P fimbriae, hemolysin, and type 1 fimbriae), and characteristics of patients. Colony and Southern hybridization of total and plasmid DNA with DNA probes for each virulence factor showed that aerobactin determinants were present in 78% of the strains and were plasmid associated in 21%, whereas P fimbria, hemolysin, and type 1 fimbria determinants were present in 74, 43, and 98% of the strains, respectively, and were always chromosomal. Chromosomal aerobactin, PO fimbria, and hemolysin determinants occurred together on the chromosome more often in strains from patients without predisposing urological or medical conditions (P = 0.04). Strains with plasmid-encoded aerobactin lacked determinants for P fimbriae (P = 0.004) and hemolysin (P = 0.0004), were resistant to multiple antimicrobial agents (P = 0.0001), and were found only in compromised patients. Mating experiments demonstrated that some aerobactin plasmids also encoded antimicrobial-agent resistance. These findings suggest that the determinants for aerobactin, P fimbriae, and hemolysin are conserved on the chromosome of the antimicrobial-agent-susceptible uropathogenic strains of E. coli which invade noncompromised patients. In contrast, these chromosomal virulence factors are often absent from E. coli strains causing urosepsis in compromised hosts; these strains may acquire plasmid aerobactin in conjuction with antimicrobial-agent resistance genes.