In earlier work we demonstrated that CMV immediate early antigens can be detected in peripheral blood leukocytes of patients with active CMV infection. We now report a comparison of the antigenemia assay and an anti-CMV ELISA in a prospective longitudinal study of 130 renal transplant recipients who were monitored for active CMV infection during the first 3 months after transplantation. Active CMV infection developed in 56 patients. The antigenemia assay had a sensitivity of 89% and a specificity of 93% in the diagnosis of active CMV infection; for the ELISA these figures were 95 and 100%, respectively. In 22 of the 56 patients a CMV syndrome occurred. Antigenemia was demonstrated in all 22 patients while an antibody response occurred in 21 of them. The antigenemia assay became positive 8 +/- 7 days before the onset of symptoms while the antibody response was observed 4 +/- 9 days after the onset of symptoms. The pattern of antigenemia was helpful for monitoring the course of the infection. The maximum level of antigenemia was significantly higher and its duration significantly longer in symptomatic than asymptomatic infection. We conclude that CMV antigenemia is a sensitive, specific, and early marker of CMV infection. The antigenemia assay is of great value in monitoring patients with a high risk of CMV infection.