Thirteen spontaneous multiple-antibiotic-resistant (Mar) mutants of Escherichia coli AG100 were isolated on Luria-Bertani (LB) agar in the presence of tetracycline (4 microg/ml). The phenotype was linked to insertion sequence (IS) insertions in marR or acrR or unstable large tandem genomic amplifications which included acrAB and which were bordered by IS3 or IS5 sequences. Five different lon mutations, not related to the Mar phenotype, were also found in 12 of the 13 mutants. Under specific selective conditions, most drug-resistant mutants appearing late on the selective plates evolved from a subpopulation of AG100 with lon mutations. That the lon locus was involved in the evolution to low levels of multidrug resistance was supported by the following findings: (i) AG100 grown in LB broth had an important spontaneous subpopulation (about 3.7x10(-4)) of lon::IS186 mutants, (ii) new lon mutants appeared during the selection on antibiotic-containing agar plates, (iii) lon mutants could slowly grow in the presence of low amounts (about 2x MIC of the wild type) of chloramphenicol or tetracycline, and (iv) a lon mutation conferred a mutator phenotype which increased IS transposition and genome rearrangements. The association between lon mutations and mutations causing the Mar phenotype was dependent on the medium (LB versus MacConkey medium) and the antibiotic used for the selection. A previously reported unstable amplifiable high-level resistance observed after the prolonged growth of Mar mutants in a low concentration of tetracycline or chloramphenicol can be explained by genomic amplification.