E. coli and related bacteria constitute about 0.1% of gut flora, and fecal–oral transmission is the major route through which pathogenic strains of the bacterium cause disease. Cells are able to survive outside the body for a limited amount of time, which makes them ideal indicator organisms to test environmental samples for fecal contamination. There is, however, a growing body of research that has examined environmentally persistent E. coli which can survive for extended periods of time outside of the host.
The bacterium can also be grown easily and inexpensively in a laboratory setting, and has been intensively investigated for over 60 years. E. coli is the most widely studied prokaryotic model organism, and an important species in the fields of biotechnology and microbiology, where it has served as the host organism for the majority of work with recombinant DNA.