Modifying previously reported techniques, we attempted to increase the efficiency of human T cell leukemia-lymphoma virus (HTLV) transformation of human T lymphocytes. Lethally irradiated donor cells (DCs) were cultured with target mononuclear cells (TMCs). DCs included ten HTLV+ T cell lines with varying degrees of virus expression or seven cell lines that do not express HTLV. TMCs were prepared from 20 cord and 16 adult peripheral blood samples, including eight patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). TMCs were either added directly to the DCs or were first stimulated with phytohemagglutinin (PHA) (5 micrograms/mL) and grown in T cell growth factor (TCGF) prior to exposure to DCs. The presence of integrated HTLV proviral DNA in the transformed cells was determined by dot blot hybridization, utilizing a cloned probe to the HTLV-I genome. HTLV production by transformed TMCs was assessed for HTLV p19, reverse transcriptase, and virus particles. No transformation occurred with T cell donor lines that do not express HTLV. Low virus expressor DCs could only, with rare exception, transform preactivated TMCs. High-titer virus-producing DCs could transform activated and nonactivated cord blood cells and activated adult TMCs. Only MT-2 could routinely transform nonactivated normal adult and activated AIDS TMCs. HUT 102 B2 could transform only one activated AIDS sample, the cells of which initially expressed HTLV-like proteins and virions. Transformed cell lines contained subsets of mature T lymphocytes with variable HTLV expression. Prior activation and culture of the T lymphocytes increases the probability and rate of transformation by HTLV, allowing for biologic detection of low HTLV- producing cells and for in vitro expansion of T lymphocyte subsets from selected patients.