This study examines the expression of human endogenous retroviral or retroviral-like (ERV) sequences in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC). Probes to 12 human ERV were used in Northern analyses of 38 patients with autoimmune muscle diseases and 31 blood donor controls. All patients and controls expressed multiple classes of ERV RNA. This expression was quite heterogenous: for each of the nine ERV classes for which expression was detected, some individuals showed high RNA levels whereas others showed low levels. ERV expression was independent of disease and autoantibody production. Statistical analysis of densitometric data indicated that expression of several classes of ERV was coordinately regulated. ERV expression in individual patients showed coordinate fluctuations with time. These studies demonstrate the heterogeneity and coordinate regulation of human ERV expression. To evaluate whether ERV expression might be affected by lymphocyte activation, PBMC were cultured with or without lymphocyte mitogens before RNA extraction. These studies demonstrated complex changes in ERV expression after lymphocyte activation. Murine ERV have several immunoregulatory activities. If human ERV have analogous effects, their heterogeneous expression and association with lymphocyte activation may have important biologic consequences.