We assessed the presence of hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA in liver or serum samples from 134 patients with hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg)-negative chronic liver disease, including 20 with hepatocellular carcinoma. HBV DNA sequences were detected in 52 of the 88 liver samples (59 per cent), including 17 of the 20 samples from patients with hepatocellular carcinoma. Presumably "replicative forms" of HBV DNA were detected in only 5 of the 88 liver samples, 3 of which were from patients with no serologic marker for HBV. In most of the liver samples the DNA patterns were consistent with the presence of HBV or a closely related virus. Of the 105 serum samples tested, HBV DNA sequences were identified in 10 (9.5 per cent), 6 of which had no HBV serologic marker. Moreover, HBsAg-associated determinants were detected in 5 of 17 patients who were positive for HBV DNA and in none of 14 patients who were negative. This study demonstrates the high frequency of HBsAg-negative HBV DNA-positive viral infection of the liver and suggests that multiplication of HBV may occur in the absence of any conventional serologic marker for HBV.