Human T cell leukemia/lymphotropic virus (HTLV) is a complex 9 kb human retrovirus with at least eight alternatively spliced mRNAs expressed from the 3' or pX region of the genome. These mRNAs allow for the expression of novel proteins from the previously recognized pX open reading frames I and II in addition to Tax, Rex and p21rex encoded from orf III and IV. These alternatively spliced messages have been detected using reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT/PCR) amplification in HTLV-I-transformed T cell lines as well as in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from infected patients with and without disease. To gain insight into the role of these alternatively spliced mRNAs in pathogenesis, we developed a semi-quantitative non-PCR-based RNase protection assay to detect and quantitate their presence in HTLV-I-infected cells. Analysis of RNA from HTLV-I-infected cells established from patients with adult T cell leukemia (ATL) as well as tropical spastic paraparesis/HTLV-I-associated myelopathy (TSP/HAM) and both IL-2-dependent and IL-2-independent HTLV-I-infected cell lines by RNase protection has confirmed the existence of all of the alternatively spliced messages in each cell line analyzed. However, the relative quantity of each message was significantly different among these lines suggesting that splice site utilization is an important viral regulatory pathway.