T1-oligonucleotide fingerprinting and mapping were used to study the expression of RNA leukemia viruses in leukemic and preleukemic AKR/J mice, with techniques designed to minimize the loss or inadvertent selection of viruses in vitro before biochemical analysis. In leukemic animals, complex mixtures of ecotropic and mink-tropic viruses were expressed. Unique but similar polytropic virus-like genomes were present in each tumor isolate. In preleukemic mice, viral isolates from the thymus that were grown on NIH3T3 fibroblasts contained genomes with non-Akv polytropic virus-related oligonucleotides. This phenomenon was not evident in fingerprints of viruses from the spleen and bone marrow of the same animals. Remarkably, the non-Akv oligonucleotides located in the 3' portion of the P15E gene, the U3 noncoding region, and the 5' part of the gp70 gene were often expressed independently. Our results suggest the following. (i) Recombinant viruses can be detected in the thymuses of young preleukemic AKR mice and increase in relative abundance with age. (ii) During in vivo generation of the recombinant leukemogenic viruses, the selection of polytropic virus-related sequences in the 3' part of p15E and the U3 region and the 5' portion of gp70 occurs independently. (iii) Independent biological properties encoded in the gp70 and p15E regions of env of the recombinant viruses may mediate viral selection or leukemogenicity. (iv) The leukemogenic polytropic viruses of AKR/J mice arise via genetic recombination involving at least three endogenous viral sequences.