A prevalence study was carried out on a 100-bed Veterans Administration nursing home care unit to determine the extent of colonization with gentamicin-resistant gram-negative bacilli (GRGNB). Hand cultures of 12 employees and 17 environmental cultures were negative. Twenty-six of 86 (30%) patients were colonized with 49 GRGNB. Sixteen patients (19%) had urinary colonization. Multivariate analysis revealed significant associations between rectal or perineal colonization (P<0.01), and the presence of a urinary device (82% condom catheters) (P<0.05), with urinary colonization. The most common isolates were Providencia stuartii (20), Escherichia coli (nine) and Klebsiella pneumoniae (nine). Twenty-six of 49 isolates carried plasmids. Restriction endonuclease digestion of plasmid DNA was performed for 21. Cross-colonization, as defined by the presence of the identical species with the identical restriction endonuclease digestion profile of purified plasmid DNA found in different patients, was observed for eight of 21 (38%) strains. All were geographically clustered. No strains could transfer gentamicin-resistance by conjugation and only two plasmids could transform our E coli recipient to gentamicin resistance. One E coli plasmid was identical to two Citrobacter freundii plasmids and a P stuartii plasmid isolated from three different patients. This 105 kb plasmid is conjugative and encodes resistance to ampicillin, carbenicillin, tetracycline, and sulfonamides. Thus, 57% of strains were cross-colonizing or contained identical R-plasmids. Southern hybridization using a 1 kb TEM-1 gene probe demonstrated sequences homologous to this probe in five of five nursing home plasmids examined. These data demonstrate the utility of plasmid analysis in epidemiologic typing of multiple species of Enterobacteriaceae, and suggest wide dissemination of R-plasmids bearing the TEM-1β-lactamase gene among gram-negative bacilli colonizing patients residing in our nursing home.