Herpetic ocular disease is one of the major causes of corneal blindness. Clinical diagnosis of corneal disease is based principally on corneal appearance. However, abnormal morphology of the corneal epithelium (CE) is not an indicator for the presence of a herpes virus. Further, it has not been established if herpes viruses are present in normal corneal epithelial tissue. In these studies, the polymerase chain reaction was used to evaluate normal and diseased corneal epithelium for the presence of herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and cytomegalovirus (CMV) genomic sequences. Thirty-two normal corneal epithelium specimens obtained from cadavers shortly after death were analyzed for HSV-1, EBV and CMV genomic sequences. Three of the 32 normal CE specimens were positive for amplified EBV DNA, 1 was positive for HSV-1 DNA, and none was positive for CMV DNA. We also tested eight herpetic dendritic lesions of which 3 were HSV-1 culture and PCR positive. The remaining five dendritic lesions were HSV-1 culture and PCR negative. Since these lesions were not evaluated for other herpesviruses, the etiology of these dendritic lesions is unknown. Six corneal epithelium samples from HIV-infected donors were negative for EBV, CMV and HSV-1 amplified sequences. Positive EBV, CMV and HSV-1 serology on all normal donors and on donors with clinically apparent disease did not correlate with positive PCR results. The results of these studies suggest that EBV and HSV-1 DNA can be amplified from a small percentage of apparently normal corneal epithelium.