Childhood infection of the respiratory tract has been proposed as an independent risk factor in the pathogenesis of the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that develops in cigarette smokers. The present study examines adult lung tissue for latent adenoviral DNA because many of its 41 serotypes cause childhood respiratory disease and the virus is known to persist in other tissues in a latent form. Lung tissue resected for solitary nodules from 20 patients with airways obstruction and 20 patients without airways obstruction, matched for age, sex, and smoking history, were compared to determine whether adenoviral DNA is more commonly found in patients with COPD. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was used to examine two widely separated segments of the adenoviral genome. In situ hybridization (ISH) was performed using a probe covering the entire viral genome to determine the types of cell infected by the virus. The PCR analysis showed that a 675 base pair target sequence of the E1A region of the adenovirus was present in most of the lungs studied with greater copy numbers in the smokers with airways obstruction in both paraffin-embedded (p less than 0.002) and frozen lung tissue (p less than 0.016), whereas the E3/19K region showed no difference between the groups. When sufficient copy numbers were present to localize the DNA by ISH it was found in epithelial cells of the smokers who had airways obstruction. These data are consistent with a current model of adenoviral integration into host DNA and suggest that the E1A region of the adenovirus may contribute to the pathogenesis of COPD.