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Escherichia coli strains isolated from patients with Crohn's disease (CD) with chronic ileal lesions (n=14), early endoscopic recurrent lesions (n=20), without endoscopic recurrence (n=7), and controls (n=21) were compared by ribotyping. The dendrogram generated by 50 ribotype profile analysis revealed a large cluster of genetically linked E coli strains isolated significantly more frequently from patients with chronic and recurrent CD (24/33 patients) than from controls (9/21) (p<0.05). Most patients operated on for chronic ileal lesions (78.5%) harboured E coli strains belonging to cluster A (p<0.002 v controls). The prevalence of patients with early recurrent lesions harbouring E coli strains belonging to this cluster was high but not significant, although 16 strains isolated from eight patients presented the same ribotype profile. In this cluster, 21 of 26 strains isolated from patients with active CD demonstrated adherent ability to differentiated Caco-2 cells, indicating that most of the genetically related strains share a common virulence trait. Comparison of E coli strains recovered from ulcerated and healthy mucosa of patients operated on for CD demonstrated in each patient that a single strain colonised the intestinal mucosa. Our results suggest that although a single E coli isolate was not found in Crohn's ileal mucosa, some genotypes were more likely than others to be associated with chronic or early recurrent ileal lesions.