Hi fhapgood, (is this a Sondheim reference?)
According to one site,
"...more is now known about E. coli than any other organism."
E. coli is found in hugely varied environments and hence it is highly
versatile in its physiology. It responds in different ways to
variances in pH, temperature, oxygen levels, osmolarity, etc. As
unstable-ga pointed out, it is a peritrichous flagellate bacillus
(rod-shaped bacteria with more than one flagellum or 'tail.')
This site has a good animation and description of bacterial motility;
how and why flagellate bacteria like E. coli move around.
E. coli is described as a Gram negative bacteria. (The term is
derived from the fact that the bacteria is not stained purple by a
Gram stain.) The real difference is in the composition of the
bacteria's cell wall, which in Gram negative cells is thinner and
contains more lipopolysaccharide than Gram positive cell walls.
Within the cell wall, the bacteria's cell contents are very simple:
from one to four identical molecules of DNA and 15,000 to 30,000
ribosomes. (Ribosomes are the site of protein-synthesis. For more
information, see the following site.)
Essentially, E. coli grows by uptaking nutrients directly from the
environment through its cell wall. Because it is found in so many
different enviroments, it is able to use many different chemicals as
'fuel.' After taking up these fuels, it converts them into energy and
the chemical building blocks it requires. The availability of these
building blocks allow it to build other proteins and such, as well as
allow it to make copies of its DNA. Of course the E. coli is always
taking up nutrients and getting rid of waste products, and thus is
able to keep growing and reproducing.
E. coli reproduction is almost always by simple division, in that the
bacteria undergoes an enymatic reaction which splits its chromosome,
and it 'pinches off' in the middle, forming two identical E. coli
cells. Under favourable conditions, this can occur once every thirty
minutes, growing exponentially. However, a phenomenon called
'conjugation' occasionally occurs: it's the single-celled organism's
answer to sexual reproduction, a method of genetic shuffling. E. coli
may conjugate with bacteria of different species or genera, not just
other E. coli.
This picture illustrates conjugation between two E. coli cells. The
'string' between the two cells is called a 'sex pillus' (plural
'pilli'). Genetic information is passed between the cells, and
included in the bacterial chromosomes. Hence, specific
characteristics may be passed on, including antibiotic resistance.
Another way genetic information can be transferred among bacteria is
through bacteriophage viruses. For an explaination and illustration
of this, see the following site:
I hope this information is what you're looking for. If you require
more specific information, please see the following links, and feel
free to ask for a clarification of my answer.
(Search strategy: "E. coli" nutrients growth environment structure)