A unique subline of BALB/c mice, designated "BALB/cV," exhibits an intermediate mammary tumor incidence (47%) and harbors a distinct milk-transmitted mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV). Virus expression and virus-host interactions were examined during the different stages of mammary tumorigenesis (normal, preneoplastic, and neoplastic) in the BALB/cV system. Protein immunoblot analyses established the presence of correctly processed (BALB/cV)MMTV structural proteins in all types of BALB/cV mammary tissues. Competition enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays demonstrated that cells from each biologic phenotype were capable of supporting high levels of (BALB/cV)MMTV protein expression. However, mammary epithelial cells that spontaneously underwent the inappropriate pathway of squamous metaplasia did not contain detectable levels of (BALB/cV)MMTV structural proteins. Iodination experiments revealed the presence of a 68K env-related protein on the surface of BALB/cV mammary cells. Nevertheless, sera from 40 mice bearing BALB/cV-positive mammary tissues did not contain detectable levels of anti-env antibodies. Metabolic labeling experiments showed that the half-life of transformation-related, host cell protein p53 (approximately equal to 60 min) in the distinct BALB/cV mammary cell populations was similar to that reported for normal mouse 3T3 cells. It appears that p53 is not stabilized by protein interactions involving any MMTV-encoded or MMTV-induced protein in mammary tumor cells. These characteristics of the BALB/cV system are compatible with the hypothesis that MMTV is only one of two or more cooperating factors required to mediate complete mammary transformation.