Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) antigens in tumor tissue define associations of virus with human malignancies and provide clues as to mechanisms of viral oncogenesis. In Burkitt's lymphoma, EBV markers are absent from 85% of sporadic cases and 4% of endemic (African) cases, raising questions as to the exact role EBV in the disease. Standard screening criteria may be insufficient to determine the EBV status of all tumors. One of 9 tumors from American patients expressed EBV nuclear antigen 1 (EBNA1) and contained standard episomal EBV DNA, making this series consistent with the 15% EBV association traditionally ascribed to sporadic Burkitt's lymphoma. Surprisingly, 3 tumors without detectable EBNA1 contained partial EBV genomes. Identification of defective, integrated viral DNA in some tumors indicates greater involvement of virus in sporadic Burkitt's lymphoma than previously documented and suggests a process of viral DNA rearrangement and loss during malignant progression most consistent with an initiating role for EBV in tumorigenesis.