Cytomegalovirus (CMV) causes severe necrotizing retinitis in patients with the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and other herpesviruses have been implicated in the acute retinal necrosis syndrome (ARN), seen in both the immunocompetent and the immunosuppressed. At present the diagnosis of viral retinitis relies solely on clinical appearances. In order to assess whether the detection of herpesvirus-specific DNA in cell-free vitreous biopsy samples could be useful in the early diagnosis of viral retinitis, vitreous fluid samples were taken from 100 patients. Fifty patients had AIDS as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, (MMWR 36 (suppl 1S):1S-15S, 1987) and retinal disease. The remainder were not known to be HIV infected and had no clinical evidence of retinal infection. Each sample was tested for the presence of CMV, herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), varicella-zoster virus (VZV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), and human herpesvirus 6 (HHV6), by amplification of viral DNA using a sensitive and specific nested polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The presence of detectable CMV or VZV DNA was clearly associated with clinical disease whereas the presence of HSV-1, EBV, and HHV6 sequences were not. Clinical discrimination between CMV- and VZV-associated retinitis was greatly enhanced when the PCR results were taken into consideration.