Human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV) is the etiologic agent of adult T-cell leukemia (ATL), a malignancy of T lymphocytes that is characterized by a long latency period after virus exposure. Intraperitoneal inoculation of severe combined immunodeficient (SCID) mice with HTLV-transformed cell lines and ATL tumor cells was employed to investigate the tumorigenic potential of HTLV type I (HTLV-I)-infected cells. In contrast to inoculation of ATL (RV-ATL) cells into SCID mice, which resulted in the formation of lymphomas, inoculation of HTLV-I- and HTLV-II-transformed cell lines (SLB-I and JLB-II cells, respectively) did not result in tumor formation. Immunosuppression of SCID mice, either by whole-body irradiation or by treatment with an antiserum, anti-asialo GM1 (α-AGM1), which transiently abrogates natural killer cell activity in vivo, was necessary to establish the growth of tumors derived from HTLV-transformed cell lines. PCR and flow cytometric studies reveal that HTLV-I-transformed cells are eliminated from the peritoneal cavities of inoculated mice by 3 days postinoculation; in contrast, RV-ATL cells persist and are detected until the mice succumb to lymphoma development. The differing behaviors of HTLV-infected cell lines and ATL tumor cells in SCID mice suggest that ATL cells have a higher tumorigenic potential in vivo than do HTLV-infected cell lines because of their ability to evade natural killer cell-mediated cytolysis.