AcrAB-TolC is the major, constitutively expressed tripartite multidrug efflux system in Escherichia coli that recognizes various structurally unrelated molecules, including many antibiotics, dyes, and steroids. The AcrB inner membrane pump portion of the efflux system has been shown in recent structural studies to bind substrates at multiple sites, suggesting that particular substrate "sets" may compete for efflux by interfering with a certain binding site(s). However, our data indicate that the general structural class does not appear to dictate a particular substrate binding site that can be competitively inhibited in whole cells. In our study, substrate competition failed to increase cell-associated levels of steroids or dyes to levels characteristic of AcrB- or AcrB/EmrAB-deficient genomic mutants or achieved with the pump inhibitor carbonyl cyanide m-chlorophenylhydrazone. In addition, this general observation was sustained even with (i) a cocktail containing seven-pump substrates supplied slightly below their respective wild-type MIC levels, (ii) competing drug substrates of the same structural class (steroids or macrolides), and (iii) hyper-MIC levels of the exogenously supplied agents. Thus, this pump system (and possibly EmrAB-TolC) may have an extraordinary capacity to simultaneously handle multiple-drug substrates that is not necessarily reflected in MIC analyses. In addition, our study has extended the range of substrates recognized by the AcrAB- and EmrAB-TolC systems.