The polymerase chain reaction is an in vitro method for primer directed enzymatic amplification of specific target DNA sequences. The technique was used to detect human papillomavirus types 11 and 16 simultaneously in cellular DNA recovered from cervical smears in 38 women referred for colposcopy to evaluate cytological abnormality and 10 women with no history of cytological abnormality. The polymerase chain reaction was shown to be both specific and sensitive in detecting human papillomavirus DNA such that a single human papillomavirus molecule was detected in 10(5) cells. Of the 38 women with cytological abnormality, all were positive for human papillomavirus on testing with the polymerase chain reaction; 36 were infected with human papillomavirus type 16 and 22 dually infected with human papillomavirus types 11 and 16. Seven of the 10 women with no cytological abnormality were also infected with human papillomavirus type 11 or 16. The use of the polymerase chain reaction will facilitate epidemiological investigation of the aetiological role of human papillomavirus in cervical neoplasia. This preliminary analysis suggests that the prevalence of human papillomavirus infection is greater than previously reported.