Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) infect specific human epithelial tissues. Because viral propagation in cultured cells has not been achieved, studies of HPV genetic activities have been difficult and rely largely on analyses of patient specimens by conventional biochemical methods. HPV type 6 and type 11 infections often result in genital warts (condylomata acuminata). Structural mapping of RNAs from such warts reveals that they use alternative promoters, splice sites, and polyadenylation sites to produce complex families of overlapping mRNAs that span multiple open reading frames. Based on the mRNA structures, we have developed message-specific subgenomic clones of HPV-6 and HPV-11 in pGEM vectors. Tritium-labeled, single-stranded RNA probes were synthesized in vitro and applied to serial thin sections of patient specimens for in situ hybridization. Our results reveal the qualitative and quantitative transcription patterns of different viral messages in relationship to one another, to viral DNA replication, and to cellular differentiation. The viral "E region" is transcribed before the onset of vegetative DNA replication and continues to be expressed in increasing amounts in the maturing epithelium. Even in mature epithelia, E region messengers are far more abundant than "L region" mRNAs. The L region messages encoding capsid proteins are truly late in that they appear concomitant with or after the onset of vegetative viral DNA replication and are only present in the superficial strata of the epithelium, which contain the oldest and most differentiated keratinocytes. Abundant intron material derived from processing E region transcripts accumulates in the nuclei. Strictly nuclear signals from the L region transcripts in the midepithelium suggest that regulation of their expression is at the level of transcription elongation.