Inbred strains of mice contain in the genome 40-60 endogenous proviruses related to murine leukemia virus. To assess the genetic and pathogenic consequences of these to the host, we have developed a strategy to distinguish among the three different host-range subgroups--xenotropic, polytropic and modified polytropic--by using oligonucleotide probes specific for a polymorphic region in env. Each of these proteins detects a relatively small number of bands in a Southern blot, thus permitting us to enumerate all individual proviruses of this group. Using this approach, we have determined the distribution of different proviruses among inbred and recombinant inbred (RI) strains congenic or coisogenic for specific mutants. Using the RI results, we have been able to place over 100 proviruses on the mouse genetic map. A number of these are closely linked to well-characterized mutations, and we have been able to establish that at least one mutation, hr (hairless), was caused by a proviral insertion. If the other close linkages also prove to reflect causality, we estimate that up to 5% of recessive mutations in the mouse might be caused by insertion of proviruses of this group. Using a similar probe strategy, we have followed the evolution of murine leukemia viruses during spontaneous leukemogenesis in AKR mice. We have found that the final leukemogenic (MCF) virus is a recombinant of three different endogenous parents; an ecotropic virus, a polytropic virus that directs the gp70 region of env, and a xenotropic virus (identified as the inducible element Bxv-1) that directs the LTR. In addition to the recombinations, all such viruses also have a reduplication of the enhancer region of the LTR, compared to the endogenous parent. MCF viruses are created by these three genetic changes, which occur in a reproducible fashion and appear in the thymus between 10 and 14 weeks of age.