A majority of pediatric patients and rare adult patients with the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) develop a chronic respiratory disorder referred to as "lymphocytic interstitial pneumonitis" (LIP). Efforts to identify an infectious agent responsible for this process so far have failed. In this study, frozen sections of lungs from patients with AIDS and pulmonary disease were tested by in situ molecular hybridization for the presence of cells infected with human T-cell lymphotropic virus type III (HTLV-III) and expressing viral RNA. In the case of an infant with LIP, a relatively high frequency (0.1 %) of cells in the lung were found to be positive for HTLV-III RNA. This number is the lower limit of total cells infected since the in situ hybridization technique as applied in this study depends on expression of HTLV-III genes, and previous evidence indicates that a proportion of cells infected with HTLV-III may not express viral RNA. Moreover, this degree of infection of the lung is likely limited to LIP, since in ten patients with AIDS and pulmonary diseases other than LIP, only 0% to 0.002% of cells in lung were positive for viral RNA expression. Thus, HTLV-III may play a direct causal role in the development of LIP in infected patients, implicating its involvement in yet another of the diverse clinical diseases associated with this virus.