Viremia is a hallmark of disseminated cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection and disease. Using conventional virus culture and a subgenomic cloned CMV DNA probe to detect viral DNA within leukocytes, we studied the virus-cell interactions involved in immunocompromised patients with viremic CMV infection. CMV was recovered by culture in 17/17 samples enriched for polymorphonuclear leukocytes. Viral DNA was detected by dot-blot hybridization in 16/17 (94%). In contrast, samples enriched for mononuclear cells yielded infectious CMV in culture in only 7/15 (47%) instances; nonetheless, viral DNA was present in 16/17 samples probed. The quantity of CMV DNA in polymorphonuclear cells was significantly greater than in mononuclear leukocytes (mean 13.1 vs. 9.1 estimated viral genome equivalents per 100 cells, respectively), and CMV was always recovered from these cells regardless of the amount of viral DNA present. Yet, when the amounts of CMV DNA were virtually identical in granulocytes and mononuclear cells (6.3 and 7.1 genomic equivalents, respectively) collected simultaneously, infectious CMV could not be recovered from mononuclear cells. Although several interpretations are possible, these data are consistent with the view that CMV exists within granulocytes in a mature infectious form during viremia. The virus interactions with mononuclear cells appear to be more complex, particularly in those cells that contain CMV DNA but do not yield infectious virus.