Sera from 410 patients from the Wuhan area in the central part of China with the diagnosis of chronic liver disease were analyzed for markers of hepatitis B, C and D virus infections. All sera, plus liver biopsy specimens from 188 of the patients, were also tested for hepatitis B virus DNA by polymerase chain reaction. Sixty-eight percent were HBsAg positive in serum, whereas 29% showed markers of past hepatitis B virus infection. Hepatitis B virus DNA was detected in all HBeAg-positive sera but also in 58% of patients with HBe antibody. In the liver specimens of the corresponding patient groups, 97% and 78%, respectively, were hepatitis B virus DNA positive. However, more noteworthy was that of the HBsAg-negative/HBs-antibody positive patients 30% had detectable hepatitis B virus DNA in serum and 32% had hepatitis B virus DNA in liver tissue, whereas in a control group of healthy blood donors, of which 90% had HBs antibody, none was hepatitis B virus DNA positive. Our results demonstrate that among patients with chronic liver disease, infections with hepatitis B virus or hepatitis B virus-related virus(es) may frequently occur without being revealed by conventional serological methods. Hepatitis C and D viruses seem to be of only minor importance in the pathogenesis of chronic liver disease in this part of China.