We investigated the cellular tropism of human B-lymphotropic virus (HBLV) (also designated Human Herpesvirus-6) in vitro by infecting fresh MN cells from normal human adult peripheral blood, umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, tonsil, and thymus. Cultures from all the sources examined contained infectable cells, as shown by the appearance of characteristic enlarged, round-shaped, short-lived cells expressing HBLV-specific markers. Detailed immunological analysis demonstrated that the vast majority of these cells expressed T cell-associated antigens (i.e., CD7, CD5, CD2, CD4, and to a lesser extent, CD8). The CD3 antigen and the TCR-alpha/beta heterodimer were not detectable on the surface membrane, but were identified within the cytoplasm of HBLV-infected cells, by both immunofluorescence and radioimmunoprecipitation assay. A proportion of the HBLV-infected cell population also expressed the CD15 and class II MHC DR antigens. By means of immunoselection procedures it was possible to show that a consistent proportion of HBLV-infectable cells were contained within the CD3-depleted immature T cell population, while the depletion of CD2+ cells completely abrogated the infectability of the cultures. Northern blot analysis confirmed the T cell origin of HBLV-infected cells, demonstrating the expression of full size TCR-alpha and -beta chain mRNA. In addition to fresh T cells, HBLV was able to infect normal T lymphocytes expanded in vitro with IL-2 for greater than 30 d. These results indicate that HBLV is selectively T cell tropic in the course of the in vitro infection of normal mononuclear cells and may therefore be directly involved in the pathogenesis of T cell related hematological disorders. In particular, in light of the cytopathic effect exerted in vitro on CD4+ T lymphocytes, a possible role of HBLV in immune deficiency conditions should be considered.