A small proportion of patients with chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection show no serological responses to the HCV polypeptides incorporated in commercial III generation immunoassays. To determine whether sera from these subjects contain antibodies to the highly immunoreactive second envelope polypeptide E2, which is not included in current anti-HCV assays, we studied 59 anti-HCV negative subjects who were found consistently to be HCV RNA positive by polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Controls included 167 anti-HCV seropositive patients with or without serum HCV RNA and normal subjects. Antibodies to the E2 region were sought for by ELISA using the following antigens: a full length E2 protein expressed in insect cells using a baculovirus vector and extracted under denaturing conditions (dE2), and a C-terminal truncated soluble E2 (sE2) protein (a.a. 390-683), also expressed with a baculovirus vector, containing a signal peptide of rabies virus G protein which allows its secretion into the culture supernatant. Sera from only two (3.4%) of the 59 anti-HCV negative, HCV RNA positive patients recognised sE2 and none dE2. In sharp contrast, 82% of seropositive, viraemic patients recognised sE2 and 60% dE2, the difference in immunoreactivity being statistically significant (P < 0.0003). A significantly lower proportion of sera from anti-HCV positive, HCV RNA negative subjects recognised either sE2 or dE2 (16% and 13%, respectively, P < 0.000001). Healthy controls were consistently negative. These results indicate that antibody responses to predominantly conformational epitopes on the HCV E2 protein are common in patients with chronic HCV infection and are strictly related to the presence of circulating viral genomes. In contrast, only a minor proportion of HCV RNA positive patients, but anti-HCV seronegative by commercial immunoassays, have humoral immune responses to the HCV E2 region.