Background: The distribution and location of insertion elements in a genome is an excellent tool to track the evolution of bacterial strains and a useful molecular marker to distinguish between closely related bacterial isolates. The information about the genomic locations of IS elements is available in public sequence databases. However, the locations of mobile elements may vary from strain to strain and within the population of an individual strain. Tools that allow de novo localization of IS elements and are independent of existing sequence information are essential to map insertion elements and advance our knowledge of the role that such elements play in gene regulation and genome plasticity in bacteria. Results: In this study, we present an efficient and reliable method for linear mapping of mobile elements using whole-genome DNA microarrays. In addition, we describe an algorithm for analysis of microarray data that can be applied to find DNA sequences physically juxtaposed with a target sequence of interest. This approach was used to map the locations of the IS5 elements in the genome of Escherichia coli K12. All IS5 elements present in the E. coli genome known from GenBank sequence data were identified. Furthermore, previously unknown insertion sites were predicted with high sensitivity and specificity. Two variants of E. coli K-12 MG1655 within a population of this strain were predicted by our analysis. The only significant difference between these two isolates was the presence of an IS5 element upstream of the main flagella regulator, flhDC. Additional experiments confirmed this prediction and showed that these isolates were phenotypically distinct. The effect of IS5 on the transcriptional activity of motility and chemotaxis genes in the genome of E.coli strain MG1655 was examined. Comparative analysis of expression profiles revealed that the presence of IS5 results in a mild enhancement of transcription of the flagellar genes that translates into a slight increase in motility. Conclusions: In summary, this work presents a case study of an experimental and analytical application of DNA microarrays to map insertion elements in bacteria and gains an insight into biological processes that might otherwise be overlooked by relying solely on the available genome sequence data.