AIMS--To test the hypothesis that membranous staining of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) on the hepatocyte is a marker of active viral replication in chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection. METHODS--Intrahepatic expression of HBsAg and hepatitis B core antigen (HBcAg) was studied by indirect immunofluorescence on frozen sections of liver specimens from 75 patients with chronic hepatitis B, and the results were correlated with serum levels of HBV-DNA assayed by spot hybridisation. RESULTS--Hepatocyte HBcAg was detected in all of 20 patients with serum levels of HBV-DNA > 1000 pg/ml, 18 (75%) of 24 patients with levels of HBV-DNA < or = 1000 pg/ml, and two (6.5%) of 31 patients without detectable serum HBV-DNA. The concordance between hepatocyte HBcAg and serum HBV-DNA was 89.3% (67/75). There were six patients (8%) who had detectable serum HBV-DNA but without hepatocyte HBcAg, and two patients (2.7%) who had detectable hepatocyte HBcAg but without serum HBV-DNA. Membranous staining of HBsAg associated with variable degrees of cytoplasmic HBsAg was found in all but one of 44 patients with serum HBV-DNA, irrespective of the levels, but in none of the 31 patients without serum HBV-DNA. Of the latter, HBsAg was distributed solely in the cytoplasm. In addition, there is an inverse correlation between serum levels of HBV-DNA and the degrees of cytoplasmic staining of HBsAg. The concordance between membranous staining fo HBsAg and serum HBV-DNA was 98.7% (74/75), significantly higher than that between hepatocyte HBcAG and serum HBV-DNA. CONCLUSIONS--Membranous staining of HBsAg on the hepatocyte correlated excellently with serum HBV-DNA and thus can be recognised as a sensitive and specific marker of active hepatitis B virus replication.