Cytomegalovirus infection causes significant morbidity and mortality in renal transplant patients. The only marker of CMV infection that appears to correlate with the development of symptomatic illness is viremia. However, CMV grows slowly in tissue culture, requiring 2-6 weeks of incubation for detection of characteristic cytopathic effect. The efficacy of antiviral therapy for CMV may be improved by earlier detection of viremia and institution of antiviral therapy. We performed amplification of CMV DNA and RNA from peripheral blood of renal transplant patients using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique. We consistently detected CMV DNA by PCR earlier than CMV was detected by culture. Detection of CMV RNA in one patient confirmed the presence of actively replicating virus in peripheral blood. Amplification of peripheral blood from healthy CMV-seropositive and seronegative individuals, and from seropositive renal transplant patients without evidence of active CMV disease, was consistently negative. These preliminary data indicate that PCR may provide a means for earlier diagnosis of CMV viremia. Future prospective studies should determine if early detection of CMV DNA by PCR in peripheral blood does predict viremia and symptomatic illness, and if earlier institution of antiviral therapy based on PCR results improves outcome for the CMV-infected transplanted patient.