Escherichia coli, a normal inhabitant of the intestinal tract of mammals and birds, is a diverse species. Most studies on E. coli populations involve organisms from humans or human-associated animals. In this study, we undertook a survey of E. coli from native Australian mammals, predominantly Rattus tunneyi, living in a relatively pristine environment in the Bundjalung National Park. The genetic diversity was assessed and compared by multilocus enzyme electrophoresis (MLEE), sequence analysis of the mdh (malate dehydrogenase) gene and biotyping using seven sugars. Ninety-nine electrophoretic types were identified from the 242 isolates analysed by MLEE and 15 sequences from the mdh genes sequenced from 21 representative strains. The Bundjalung isolates extend the diversity represented by the E. coli reference (ECOR) set, with new MLEE alleles found in six out of 10 loci. Many of the Bundjalung isolates fell into a discrete group in MLEE. Other Bundjalung strains fell into the recognized E. coli ECOR set groups, but tended to be at the base of both the MLEE and mdh gene trees, implying that these strains are derived independently from ancestral forms of the ECOR groups and that ECOR strains represent only a subset of E. coli adapted to humans and human-associated animals. Linkage disequilibrium analysis showed that the Bundjalung population has an 'epidemic' population structure. The Bundjalung isolates were able to utilize more sugars than the ECOR strains, suggesting that diet plays a prominent role in adaptation of E. coli.
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