The continuation of an apparent evolutionary trend of Marek's disease virus (MDV) towards greater virulence may explain recent increased losses from Marek's disease (MD) in vaccinated flocks. To address this question, the virulence of 31 isolates of serotype 1 MDV obtained from layer or broiler flocks between 1987 and 1995 were characterized. Each isolate was cultured in duck embryo fibroblasts for four to six passages, and ascertained to be free from contamination with avian retroviruses, chicken anemia virus, and MDVs of other serotypes. The viruses, along with prototype viruses JM/102W and Md5, were tested for virulence by inoculation at 6 days of age into laboratory strain 15I5 x 7(1) chickens of three types: nonvaccinated, vaccinated with turkey herpesvirus (HVT) and bivalent (HVT + SB-1)-vaccinated. The results showed that three isolates did not differ from JM/102W and were classified in the virulent (vMDV) pathotype. Twenty-one isolates produced significantly higher levels of MD in HVT-vaccinated chickens than did the JM/102W control and were classified in the very virulent (vvMDV) pathotype. Seven isolates, five of which were isolated in 1994 or 1995, produced significantly higher levels of MD in bivalent-vaccinated chickens than did the Md5 (vvMDV) control. These isolates, provisionally designated as the vv+MDV pathotype, appeared to be at the high end of a virulence continuum. Several MD response parameters, including lymphoma mortality, early mortality with bursal/thymic atrophy, and frequency of visceral lymphomas or ocular lesions in nonvaccinated chickens were positively correlated with virulence. These findings support the continued evolution of MDV towards greater virulence.