Although Escherichia coli is an indicator of fecal contamination in aquifers, limited research has been devoted to understanding the biological processes involved in the initial attachment of E. coli transported in abiotic porous media. The roles of the various surface structures of E. coli, like lipopolysaccharides (LPS), autotransporter proteins, and fimbriae are unknown. The objective of this research was to establish the effects of variations in surface characteristics of the outer membrane of E. coli on the attachment efficiency of 54 E. coli strains upon transport in saturated quartz sand under identical flow conditions. We used column experiments to assess retention of the E. coli strains, and we determined sphericity, motility, zeta-potential, and aggregation of all strains. LPS composition was determined based on known serotypes, and the presence/absence of 22 genes encoding surface characteristics was determined with qualitative PCR. The results indicated that under identical flow conditions, there was a variation of two orders of magnitude in the maximum breakthrough concentrations of the 54 E. coli strains. Of all factors we investigated, no single factor was able to explain attachment efficiency variations statistically significantly. However, low attachment efficiencies were associated (p = 0.13) with LPS containing saccharides with phosphate and/or carboxyl groups. These saccharide groups are acidic and likely charged with a negative O-atom, which reduced attachment to the negatively charged quartz surface. In addition, of the 22 genes tested, Afa was most associated (p = 0.21) with attachment efficiency. The work presented here bridges knowledge on colloid transport and molecular microbiology, and tries to offer a more holistic view on the attachment of planktonic E. coli bacteria to (abiotic) quartz grain surfaces. Future research should involve the use of microbiological techniques in order to be able to map the unique or grouped characteristics of E. coli in aquifers, and to assess the usefulness of E. coli as a fecal indicator in aquifers. © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.