AIMS: To develop techniques for the characterisation of toxins elaborated by a strain of Escherichia coli associated with sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). METHODS: E coli SIDS 04, isolated from the nasopharynx of a case of SIDS, was studied. Cell-free toxin preparations were standardised, their protein measured, and analytical separation of proteins achieved using sodium dodecyl sulphate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE). Acetone precipitation of proteins was required prior to Coomassie blue staining of bands. Preparative separation was achieved on an anion exchange column using a programmed concentration gradient of NaCl in TRIS buffer. Fractions were tested individually or pooled for presence of lethal toxin including endotoxin. Lethal toxin was detected with the chick embryo test system. Endotoxin was measured using a chromogenic modification of the Limulus amoebocyte assay. RESULTS: Twenty one peaks were detected by chromatography. Ten individual, or pooled, fractions were assayed for endotoxin which ranged from 27-33 pg/ml. Much greater variation was found when the same fractions were assayed in chick embryos. E coli fractions varied considerably in lethal toxicity, from 0/10 to 10/10 chick embryos killed/tested. Certain E coli fractions tested individually (lethality four out of 10 to eight out of 10) proved more lethal (10 out of 10) if pooled prior to testing. CONCLUSIONS: In E coli infection associated with SIDS relatively low concentrations of extracellular protein are lethally toxigenic for the chick embryo model of SIDS. These proteins can be separated analytically by SDS-PAGE and preparatively by anion exchange chromatography. Toxicity of individual fractions is not correlated with endotoxin concentrations in samples tested.