The role of cytomegalovirus (CMV) in the early development of atherosclerosis was studied in a rat model. Arterial samples derived from virus-infected normo- and hypercholesterolaemic animals were investigated by light microscopy at 1, 4, 8 and 16 weeks post infection. Early atherogenic lesions comparable to those seen in non-infected hypercholesterolaemic rats were found in CMV-infected normocholesterolaemic and hypercholesterolaemic animals, starting at 1 week post infection. The changes consisted of minimal endothelial cell damage, as shown by the en face technique, and a more than 10-fold increase in the number of leukocytes adhering to the aortic intima. The increased adhesion of leukocytes was observed in infected normocholesterolaemic rats but only in the non-infected rats which were hypercholesterolaemic. The infection of hypercholesterolaemic rats did not enhance this effect although it resulted in increased migration of the leukocytes into the subendothelial space. CMV infection of normocholesterolaemic rats induced lipid accumulation in the endothelium. In these animals approximately 1% of the endothelial cells contained lipid at 1 week post infection. In the non-infected hypercholesterol-fed animals 10% of the cells contained lipid. CMV infection in these rats induced an extra increase of the lipid-containing endothelial area. The changes in the CMV infected animals largely corresponded with the intimal injury observed in the hypercholesterolaemic rats. These results support the hypothesis that CMV may be one of the factors involved in atherogenesis.