Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a human herpesvirus which infects almost all of the world's population subclinically during childhood and thereafter remains in the body for life. The virus colonizes antibody-producing (B) cells, which, as relatively long-lived resting cells, are an ideal site for long-term residence. Here EBV evades recognition and destruction by cytotoxic T cells. EBV is passed to naive hosts in saliva, but how the virus gains access to this route of transmission is not entirely clear. EBV carries a set of latent genes that, when expressed in resting B cells, induce cell proliferation and thereby increase the chances of successful virus colonization of the B-cell system during primary infection and the establishment of persistence. However, if this cell proliferation is not controlled, or if it is accompanied by additional genetic events within the infected cell, it can lead to malignancy. Thus EBV acts as a step in the evolution of an ever-increasing list of malignancies which are broadly of lymphoid or epithelial cell origin. In some of these, such as B-lymphoproliferative disease in the immunocompromised host, the role of the virus is central and well defined; in others, such as Burkitt's lymphoma, essential cofactors have been identified which act in concert with EBV in the evolution of the malignant clone. However, in several diseases in which the presence of EBV has more recently been discovered, the role of the virus is unclear. This review describes recent views on the EBV life cycle and its interlinks with normal B-cell biology, and discusses how this interrelationship may be upset and result in EBV-associated disease.