The presence of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) DNA sequences was examined by the polymerase chain reaction in 50 nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) biopsy specimens and in two primary epithelial tumor cell cultures derived from patients with NPC. The detection limit was a single EBV genome equivalent by agarose gel electrophoresis followed by Southern blot analysis of the amplified products. EBV DNA sequences were detected in all 41 undifferentiated NPC cell specimens, in 2 of 4 moderately differentiated NPC cell specimens, and in 3 of 5 keratinized NPC cell specimens. Undifferentiated NPC cells were also found to contain higher copy numbers of EBV than cells of the other two types of NPC. Our data suggest that EBV replication may be closely associated with the differentiation of NPC tumor cells. The results also demonstrated a sensitive and specific method for the detection of EBV DNA sequences in NPC tumor cells.