A new chemiluminescent in situ hybridization (CISH) method provides simultaneous detection, identification, and enumeration of culturable Escherichia coli cells in 100 ml of municipal water within one working day. Following filtration and 5 h of growth on tryptic soy agar at 35 degrees C, individual microcolonies of E. coli were detected directly on a 47-mm-diameter membrane filter using soybean peroxidase-labeled peptide nucleic acid (PNA) probes targeting a species-specific sequence in E. coli 16S rRNA. Within each microcolony, hybridized, peroxidase-labeled PNA probe and chemiluminescent substrate generated light which was subsequently captured on film. Thus, each spot of light represented one microcolony of E. coli. Following probe selection based on 16S ribosomal DNA (rDNA) sequence alignments and sample matrix interference, the sensitivity and specificity of the probe Eco16S07C were determined by dot hybridization to RNA of eight bacterial species. Only the rRNA of E. coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa were detected by Eco16S07C with the latter mismatch hybridization being eliminated by a PNA blocker probe targeting P. aeruginosa 16S rRNA. The sensitivity and specificity for the detection of E. coli by PNA CISH were then determined using 8 E. coli strains and 17 other bacterial species, including closely related species. No bacterial strains other than E. coli and Shigella spp. were detected, which is in accordance with 16S rDNA sequence information. Furthermore, the enumeration of microcolonies of E. coli represented by spots of light correlated 92 to 95% with visible colonies following overnight incubation. PNA CISH employs traditional membrane filtration and culturing techniques while providing the added sensitivity and specificity of PNA probes in order to yield faster and more definitive results.