Serum components inhibit DNA polymerase, thereby obviating direct detection of serum viral DNA sequences by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This has necessitated extraction of nucleic acid from sera before performing PCR and has resulted in loss of sensitivity. By adsorbing virus to a solid surface (microcentrifuge tubes or antibody coated microparticles) followed by proteinase K digestion, as little as three viruses per 200 gl serum may be directly detected by PCR without nucleic acid extraction. The sensitivity is dependent on the surface area of the adsorptive surface and is increased by having antibodies on the adsorptive surface. The nucleic acid sequence of the amplified DNA fragments may be directly determined by the dideoxy method. Of 24 plasma samples from HBsAg+ volunteer blood donors, HBV DNA was detected in 7 by dot blot assay, 7 by liquid hybridization, and 9 by PCR. PCR detected DNA in every sample that was positive by another assay. Analysis of serial samples of two patients with acute self-limited hepatitis B found detectable HBsAg and pre-S2 antigenemia before HBV DNA by the PCR method. These results suggest that surface antigenemia may precede viremia during acute hepatitis.