To examine the postliver transplant recurrence of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection in patients with pretransplant infection, as well as its acquisition in patients without prior infection, we used the polymerase chain reaction to amplify HCV RNA in serum and/or liver samples of 89 patients with alcoholic and cryptogenic cirrhosis undergoing liver transplantation. Results were correlated with histologic findings from posttransplant liver biopsies. Ninety-five percent of patients with pretransplant infection had posttransplant viremia. In contrast, 35% of patients without pretransplant infection acquired the virus (P less than 0.0001). Pretransplant HCV infection predisposed patients to hepatitis in the new graft. HCV RNA was present in serum of 96% of patients with posttransplant hepatitis. Fifty-six percent of patients with posttransplant HCV infection had no evidence of liver damage at least 1 year posttransplant. However, of those patients with histologic hepatitis, chronic active hepatitis was common. It is concluded that although HCV infection recurs posttransplant in almost all infected patients, acquisition of the HCV infection with transplant is common. Pretransplant HCV infection is an independent risk factor for the development of posttransplant hepatitis. HCV infection accounts for the majority of posttransplant hepatitis not due to cytomegalovirus, and although many patients with posttransplant viremia have little evidence of histologic hepatitis, significant hepatic damage may occur.