A latent form of persistent infection can be established in susceptible adult mice inoculated with a preparation of defective Friend spleen focus-forming virus (SFFV) purified free from standard leukemia-inducing helper virus (LLV-F). SFFV persistence was initially observed using an in vivo rescue technique in which SFFV could be directly rescued to form splenic foci of malignant erythropoiesis in mice. At approximately 30 d after virus inoculation however, SFFV could not be rescued after inoculation of LLV-F indicating that persistently infected (i.e., SFFV+) mice were either immume to exogenous helper virus or able to express SFFV-associated defective-interfering (DI) function(s). Persistent infection by SFFV was further documented using an in vitro rescue technique and ultimately resulted in the induction by SFFV of erythroleukemia in the absence of polycythemia or overt virus production. However, SFFV rescued by LLV-F from persistently infected normal and transformed hemopoietic cells was able to induce polycythemia in adult mice suggesting that this is a helper controlled property of the Friend virus complex. Transplantable SFFV-induced erythroleukemic cells could be retrieved from persistently infected yet histologically normal mice. The duration of SFFV persistence in normal spleen tissue suggests that the SFFV provirus resides in either a long-lived or pluripotent hemopoietic cell. Further, certain changes occurred, presumably in the membranes of persistently infected cells, which preceded the overt development of Friend leukemia and facilitated the definition of an SFFV preleukemic phase. Cell surface alterations were revealed using cell transfer techniques. Hemopoietic cells harboring a rescuable SFFV failed to proliferate when inoculated into lethally irradiated, syngeneic adult mice. In contrast, the transformed progeny of preleukemic cell populations and spleen cells transformed by FV complex (i.e., cells replicating both SFFV and LLV-F) were not rejected. This result suggests that histologically normal SFFV+ preleukemic cells express an antigen recognition site which is not present on overtly transformed cells and which may be a pertinent surveillance target for host anti-leukemogenic reactions.