The level of proviral DNA in peripheral blood mononuclear cells from a representative group of asymptomatic HTLV-I carriers in Miyazaki district, an HTLV-I endemic area in Japan, was determined by a single-cycle polymerase chain reaction method (PCR). Of 217 subjects, 26% had a high level of proviral DNA, 43% a medium level, 18% a low level, and 13% an undetectable level. In the high-DNA group, 60% had at least 0.6% abnormal lymphocytes on peripheral blood smears, significantly higher than in those with low DNA levels (19%). This association was present for men of all ages and for women under 55. Men were more than twice as likely to have abnormal lymphocytes as well as high levels of proviral DNA. These differences may reflect different host responses to the virus by sex or by the time or route of infection. This study supports the utility of PCR for molecular screening in epidemiologic studies of the natural history of HTLV-I, and may lead to the identification of those carriers who are at greatest risk of developing HTLV-l-induced malignancy.