Antibodies against synthetic peptides derived from the polymerase gene of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) were present in 80% of renal dialysis patients infected with HBV and in woodchucks infected with woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV). Polymerase antibody (anti-pol) appeared as the earliest marker of both HBV and WHV infections in approximately half of the individuals tested, suggesting that these antibodies were generated following early viral replication in the liver during the incubation period and prior to the appearance of virus in the blood. Many HBV- or WHV-infected individuals negative for surface antigen throughout infection also had anti-pol, but anti-pol appeared only after anti-surface, anti-core and/or anti-e. The presence of anti-pol did not correlate with other serologic markers of HBV or WHV infection, nor did it correlate with histologically confirmed hepatitis in woodchucks. However, there was a significant correlation between the presence of anti-pol and elevated liver enzyme levels in the sera of renal dialysis patients. In several cases, anti-pol was the sole marker of infection, suggesting that underlying infection and low levels of virus replication were present. Most individuals with anti-pol had antibodies to one of the three synthetic peptides, suggesting it may be immunodominant in natural infections. In human populations, groups with a high frequency of HBV infection have a high frequency of polymerase antibodies, and groups with a low frequency of HBV infection have a low frequency of polymerase antibodies. A standard assay for the detection of polymerase antibodies is described, and possible clinical applications are discussed.