Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) not only induces growth transformation in human B lymphocytes, but has more recently been shown to enhance B cell survival under suboptimal conditions where growth is inhibited; both effects are mediated through the coordinate action of eight virus-coded latent proteins. The effect upon cell survival is best recognized in EBV-positive Burkitt's lymphoma cell lines where activation of full virus latent gene expression protects the cells from programmed cell death (apoptosis). Here we show by DNA transfection into human B cells that protection from apoptosis is conferred through expression of a single EBV latent protein, the latent membrane protein LMP 1. Furthermore, we demonstrate that LMP 1 mediates this effect by up-regulating expression of the cellular oncogene bcl-2. The interplay between EBV infection and expression of this cellular oncogene has important implications for virus persistence and for the pathogenesis of virus-associated malignant disease.