According to the selfish operon hypothesis, the clustering of genes and their subsequent organization into operons is beneficial for the constituent genes because it enables the horizontal gene transfer of weakly selected, functionally coupled genes. The majority of these are expected to be non-essential genes. From our analysis of the Escherichia coli genome, we conclude that the selfish operon hypothesis is unlikely to provide a general explanation for clustering nor can it account for the gene composition of operons. Contrary to expectations, essential genes with related functions have an especially strong tendency to cluster, even if they are not in operons. Moreover, essential genes are particularly abundant in operons.