Human T-cell leukaemia virus type I (HTLV-I) is the aetiological agent of adult T-cell leukaemia/lymphoma and tropical spastic paraparesis/HTLV-I-associated myelopathy (TSP/HAM). The -activating protein (Tax) of HTLV-I is strongly implicated in cellular proliferation. We examined the gene and 5′ long terminal repeat (LTR) sequences in eight naturally infected T-cell clones derived from TSP/HAM-affected individuals who were either productively (proliferate spontaneously) or silently (do not proliferate spontaneously) infected. In two silently infected clones point mutations within the proviruses resulted in truncation of the Tax protein. One clone harboured both a deleterious gene mutation and a point mutation in an enhancer element of the 5′ LTR. Sequence changes, immunological escape mutation, integration site context and host cell phenotype may all contribute to the high proportion of latently or silently infected T-cells found in virus carriers.


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