To assess the pattern of development of serologic markers during acute hepatitis B, levels of HBsAg, HBeAg, and hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA were assayed in stored serum samples obtained sequentially from 12 subjects infected with HBV during experimental studies conducted in the 1950s. Six patients developed acute self-limited hepatitis, three developed chronic hepatitis, and three had an asymptomatic infection without HBsAg. HBsAg was the first serologic marker detected (mean = 52 days after exposure), followed by HBeAg (62 days) and HBV DNA (72 days). Peak HBsAg levels occurred before onset of symptoms and correlated with peak titers of HBeAg and HBV DNA. Patients who developed chronic hepatitis had higher peak levels of viral markers than those with self-limited disease: HBsAg (30 versus 5.4 μg/ml), HBeAg (1:2,000 versus 1:60 titer) and HBV DNA (3,192 versus 444 pg/ml). Thus, chronic HBV infection is characterized by high levels of viral replication appearing early during the acute phase of infection. © 1994 Wiley-Liss, Inc.