Inbred DA (AG-B4, RT1a) and WF (AG-B2, RT1v) rats were used as donors and recipients of aortic allografts. The recipient rats were inoculated i.p. either on day 1 (early infection) or on day 60 (late infection) with 10(5) plaque-forming units of rat cytomegalovirus (RCMV). The control rats were left noninfected. The presence of viral infection was demonstrated by plaque assays from biopsies of the salivary glands, liver, and spleen at sacrifice. The rats received 300 microCi[3H]thymidine by i.v. injection 3 h before sacrifice, and the grafts were removed at various time points for histology, immunohistochemistry, and autoradiography. RCMV infection significantly enhanced the generation of allograft arteriosclerosis. Infection at the time of transplantation had two important effects. First, the infection was associated with an early, prominent inflammatory episode and proliferation of inflammatory cells in the allograft adventitia. Second, the viral infection doubled the proliferation rate of smooth muscle cells and the arteriosclerotic alterations in the intima. In late infection the impact of RCMV infection on the allograft histology was nearly nonexistent. RCMV infection showed no effect in syngeneic grafts. These results suggest that early infection is more important to the generation of accelerated allograft arteriosclerosis than late infection, and that an acute alloimmune response must be associated with virus infection, to induce accelerated allograft arteriosclerosis. RCMV-infected aortic allografts, as described here, provide the first experimental model to investigate the interaction between the virus and the vascular wall of the transplant.