Two reports have shown hepatitis B virus DNA in serum and liver tissue in alcoholic liver disease with negative serum HBsAg, suggesting a pathogenetic role for hepatitis B virus. We studied hepatitis B virus DNA in serum and liver from three groups of alcoholic patients; (Group 1) 50 patients without liver disease, (Group 2) 108 patients with alcoholic liver disease and (Group 3) five patients with alcoholic liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma. Serum was tested for HBsAg, anti-hepatitis B core and anti-hepatitis B surface by radioimmunoassay and hepatitis B virus DNA by direct spot hybridization. Liver tissue from Groups 2 and 3 (113 patients) was examined by Southern blot analysis using 32P-labeled hepatitis B virus DNA clone from pBR322. Controls were 21 patients with chronic hepatitis B virus (14 patients with chronic active hepatitis, seven patients with cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma). Serum and tissue were analyzed for hepatitis B virus DNA. Hepatitis B virus DNA was not detected in either serum or liver tissue in any of the 163 patients (Groups 1 to 3). In contrast, among the controls, hepatitis B virus DNA was present in the serum of 15 of the 21. Tissue DNA in those with chronic active hepatitis revealed 10/14 with free hepatitis B virus DNA, two with integrated sequences and two with no viral sequences. All seven patients with hepatocellular carcinoma had integrated viral DNA sequences in the tumor tissues. From these results, it appears that hepatitis B virus does not play a role in the pathogenesis of alcoholic liver disease.