Immunostaining techniques that use a monoclonal antibody against an early cytomegalovirus antigen or a polyclonal antibody, in situ DNA hybridization and inoculation of cell cultures for the detection of cytomegalovirus from liver biopsy specimens were studied in 20 liver transplant patients with cytomegalovirus hepatitis, as defined by histological criteria. A total of 108 liver biopsy specimens from 20 patients with a diagnosis of cytomegalovirus hepatitis (obtained per protocol at 7, 21, 90, and 180 days or whenever liver dysfunction occurred), which had previously been examined histologically and in cell culture, were again studied by recutting the liver tissue for histological examination, DNA hybridization and immunostaining with monoclonal or polyclonal antibodies to cytomegalovirus. In 5 of 20 patients, the diagnosis of cytomegalovirus hepatitis could have been made earlier (mean = 9.6 days) by immunostaining with a monoclonal antibody. Of 47 biopsy specimens with cytomegalovirus inclusion bodies, the sensitivity and specificity of the diagnostic procedures were immunostaining with monoclonal antibody (84% and 90%) and polyclonal antibody (72% and 97%), in situ DNA hybridization (72% and 100%) and cell culture detection (52% and 95%), respectively. Immunostaining with a monoclonal antibody against an early CMV antigen frequently detected cytomegalovirus infection in the liver allograft earlier than identification of typical histological inclusion bodies. DNA in situ hybridization was less sensitive than other techniques but highly specific; cytomegalovirus cell culture lacked sensitivity compared with the other procedures.