To assess the role of the aerobactin-related system in the virulence of bovine opportunistic Escherichia coli, and to determine the stage(s) of the overall infectious process at which it is acting, germfree lambs were mixedly infected orally with two derivative strains of this bacterium differing in their ability (Iut+) or inability (Iut-) to express a functional aerobactin-mediated iron transport system. The Iut- strain was compared with the Iut+ strain for colonization of the gut, translocation to the mesenteric lymph nodes (MLN), and spread to other organs and to the body fluids of diassociated lambs. The Iut- mutant was found in smaller numbers in the duodenum, suggesting that aerobactin conferred a significant selective advantage for colonization of this intestinal segment. Although the two challenge strains translocated to MLN, the population level in the MLN was always higher for the Iut+ strain. Moreover, experimental infections resulted in recovery of only the Iut+ strain in the organs other than the MLN and in the body fluids. These results indicate a role for aerobactin in promoting systemic spread of the bacteria from the intestine. Direct evidence was obtained that aerobactin secretion occurred in vivo at both intestinal and extraintestinal sites of infection. In contrast to enterobactin, aerobactin was detected in the duodenum, jejunum, ileum, cecum, liver, spleen, kidney, urine, cerebrospinal fluid, and bile. The highest concentration of aerobactin was found in the urine, even when the samples were devoid of infecting bacteria. All of these findings suggest that aerobactin is released in vivo in a diffusible form and that it may be an important step in the production of disease by intestinal opportunistic E. coli.