The involvement of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) in the pathogenesis of lymphocytic interstitial pneumonia (LIP) was investigated using an in situ hybridization technique. Archival lung tissue samples from 14 patients (six men and eight women with a mean age of 58 +/- 3 yr) in whom a diagnosis of LIP had been previously established were retrospectively examined and compared with samples from 10 patients (six men and four women with a mean age of 58 +/- 3 yr) with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) who served as control subjects. In patients with LIP, the immunophenotype of the lymphocytic infiltrate was determined by using monoclonal antibodies to both pan-B-cell and pan-T-cell markers. In situ hybridization studies were performed by using the BamHI-W region of the EBV genome as a probe and a colorimetric detection method. The immunophenotyping studies showed that the interstitial infiltrate in LIP was primarily made up of B-lymphocytes, particularly within the lymphoid aggregates, whereas T-lymphocytes were sparsely distributed along the alveolar septa. The in situ hybridization studies showed the presence of cells bearing the EBV genome in nine cases of LIP and in two cases of IPF (p less than 0.05, Fisher's exact test). In LIP, the EBV-positive cells were observed in both enlarged and normal septa and occasionally within the lymphoid aggregates. We conclude that EBV may promote the proliferation of B-lymphocytes in a substantial number of patients with LIP.