All Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) isolates can be classified as type A or type B depending upon the identity of their EBV nuclear antigen (EBNA) 2 protein. The great majority of isolates examined to date encode an EBNA 2A protein like that of the reference type A strain B95-8. Type B virus strains, encoding an antigenically distinct EBNA 2B protein, have as yet only been rescued from rare Burkitt's lymphoma (BL) cell lines of African origin (Jijoye, AG876). Our recent finding that type B isolates are less efficient than type A in in vitro transformation assays prompted us to determine (i) the relative contribution the two types of virus make to the incidence of BL in endemic areas of Africa (Kenya) and New Guinea and (ii) the relative incidence of infection with these two types in the normal population in these same areas. On the first point, EBNA 2 gene typing using specific DNA probes showed that four of ten recently established Kenyan BL cell lines and two of four BL cell lines from New Guinea carried type B virus isolates. To address the second point, spontaneous lymphoblastoid cell lines were established from the blood of normal virus carriers and typed for EBNA 2 at the protein level; a significant proportion (greater than 20%) of the normal population in both the above BL-endemic areas were infected with type B isolates. This is the first indication of the widespread nature of type B virus infection in any community and the first isolation of such viruses from a non-BL source. The reproducible size of the EBNA 2B protein encoded by all type B isolates irrespective of their geographical origin, and of the EBNA 1 protein encoded by all type B isolates from one area, contrasted markedly with the extreme variability in the size both of EBNA 2A and of EBNA 1 seen generally among type A isolates. This suggests that the number of type B virus strains in existence worldwide could be quite limited. Most importantly, the data suggest that type B viruses, despite their relatively poor performance in in vitro transformation assays, can contribute at least as efficiently as can type A viruses to the pathogenesis of BL.