The correlation between ribosome content and growth rate found in many bacterial species has proved useful for estimating the growth activity of individual cells by quantitative in situ rRNA hybridization. However, in dynamic environments, the stability of mature ribosomal RNA causes problems in using cellular rRNA contents for direct monitoring of bacterial growth activity in situ. In a recent paper, Cangelosi and Brabant suggested monitoring the content of precursors in rRNA synthesis (pre-rRNAs) as an alternative approach. These are rapidly broken down after the cessation of bacterial growth. We have applied fluorescence in situ hybridization of pre-16S rRNA to Escherichia coli cells growing in vitro in extracts from two different compartments of the mouse intestine: the caecal mucus layer, where E. coli grew rapidly, and the contents of the caecum, which supported much slower bacterial growth. The amounts of 23S rRNA and pre-16S rRNA measured for E. coli growing in intestinal mucus corresponded to that expected for bacteria with the observed growth rate. In contrast, the slow-growing E. coli cells present in intestinal contents turned out to have an approximately ninefold higher content of pre-16S rRNA than cultures of the same strain growing rapidly in rich media. We present results suggesting that the mouse intestinal contents contain an agent that inhibits the growth of E. coli by disturbing its ability to process pre-16S rRNA.