Plant roots and leaves can be colonized by human pathogenic bacteria, and accordingly some of the largest outbreaks of foodborne illness have been associated with salad leaves contaminated by E. coli O157. Integrated disease management strategies often exploit cultivar resistance to provide a level of protection from economically important plant pathogens; however, there is limited evidence of whether the genotype of the plant can also influence the extent of E. coli O157 colonization. To determine cultivar-specific effects on colonization by E. coli O157, we used 12 different cultivars of lettuce inoculated with a chromosomally lux-marked strain of E. coli O157:H7. Lettuce seedlings grown gnotobiotically in vitro did exhibit a differential cultivar-specific response to E. coli O157 colonization, although importantly there was no relationship between metabolic activity (measured as bioluminescence) and cell numbers. Metabolic activity was highest and lowest on the cultivars Vaila-winter gem and Dazzle respectively, and much higher in endophytic and tightly bound cells than in epiphytic and loosely bound cells. The cultivar effect was also evident in the rhizosphere of plants grown in compost, which suggests that cultivar-specific root exudate influences E. coli O157 activity. However, the influence of cultivar in the rhizosphere was the opposite to that in the phyllosphere, and the higher number and activity of E. coli O157 cells in the rhizosphere may be a consequence of them not being able to gain entry to the plant as effectively. If metabolic activity in the phyllosphere corresponds to a more prepared state of infectivity during human consumption, leaf internalization of E. coli O157 may pose more of a public health risk than leaf surface contamination alone.