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The incidence of resistance to ampicillin, chloramphenicol, kanamycin, nalidixic acid, neomycin and streptomycin was significantly greater (P < 0.001) in native heterotrophic bacteria than in Escherichia coli isolated from a range of sites along the Yarra River in south-eastern Australia. There was no significant difference in the incidence of resistance between native and faecal bacteria to tetracycline. Both groups were almost totally resistant to penicillin. Multivariate analyses indicated little clear spatial pattern in the incidence of resistance in native bacteria from upstream vs downstream sites along the Yarra River. In contrast, E. coli isolated from upstream (rural) sites tended to have a lower incidence of resistance than isolates from downstream (urban) sites. These findings have implications for the use of antibiotic resistance as a bacteriological water quality parameter.