The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) genes expressed in B lymphocytes immortalized in vitro or in Burkitt's lymphoma (BL) cells infected in vivo have been characterized previously; however, the viral products which are essential for immortalization or for establishment of EBV latency are still not known. To approach this question, we compared the kinetics of expression of EBV nuclear antigens and the two EBV-encoded small RNAs, EBER1 and EBER2, after infection of primary B cells or EBV genome-negative BL cells with either an immortalizing EBV strain (B95-8) or the nonimmortalizing deletion mutant (HR-1). Following infection of primary cells with B95-8 virus, EBV nuclear antigen (EBNA)-2 was expressed first, followed by EBNA-1, -3, and -4 (also called leader protein [LP]) and the two small RNAs. Infection of EBV genome-negative BL cells with the same strain of virus resulted in a similar pattern of gene expression, except that the EBNAs appeared together and more rapidly. EBERs were not apparent in one BL cell line converted by B95-8. The only products detected after infection of primary B lymphocytes with the HR-1 deletion mutant were the EBNA-4 (LP) family and trace amounts of EBER1. Although HR-1 could express neither EBNA-1, EBNA-3, nor EBER2 in primary cells, all these products were expressed rapidly after HR-1 infection of EBV genome-negative BL cell lines. The results indicate that the mutation in HR-1 virus affects immortalization not only through failure to express EBNA-2, a gene which is deleted, but also indirectly by curtailing expression of several other EBV genes whose coding regions are intact in the HR-1 virus and normally expressed during latency. The pattern of latent EBV gene expression after HR-1 infection is dependent on the host cell, perhaps through products specific for the cell cycle or the state of B-cell differentiation.