AIM: To identify cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection in liver transplant recipients by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques and to separate the cases in which CMV related disease will occur, for whom treatment is indicated, from those in whom infection will remain innocuous. METHODS: The combination of qualitative and semiquantitative PCR of serum and urine was assessed to determine whether these assays can identify those at risk of CMV related disease and compared their performance with conventional approaches to diagnosis. RESULTS: Qualitative PCR of serum had superior specificity, sensitivity, and positive and negative predictive values compared with urine DEAFF (detection of early antigen fluorescent foci) and PCR of urine. All episodes of CMV related disease were associated with the presence of CMV DNA by PCR in serum or urine; CMV was detected before clinical onset in 70% and 60% of cases, respectively. The period over which CMV DNA could be detected was not correlated with CMV related disease. Both peak viral load and cumulative viral load estimated using a semiquantitative PCR method on serum samples positive by the qualitative method could be used to distinguish asymptomatic infection from CMV related disease with 100% specificity and sensitivity. In contrast semiquantitative PCR of urine was of little value. CONCLUSIONS: An approach based on PCR testing with a combination of qualitative and subsequently semiquantitative serum samples would improve the diagnosis of CMV infection and aid identification of those patients at risk of CMV related disease, allowing treatment to be targeted specifically.