PURPOSE Although cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis is known to occur in association with retinal microangiopathy in individuals with marked immunodeficiency, glial cells are believed to be the initial target cells in the development of retinitis. Moreover, it has been hypothesized that CMV gains access to the retinal glia because of altered vascular permeability. In an attempt to address the hypothesis, we studied 30 autopsy eyes of AIDS patients with systemic CMV infection, with or without clinically apparent CMV retinitis. METHODS The autopsy eyes were processed in three ways. First, dual immunohistochemical studies were done by using anti-CMV antibodies for immediate early, early, and late antigens. The retinal cell types infected with the virus were then determined by using anti-GFAP, anti-VonWillebrand's factor, neuronal specific enolase, and leukocyte marker CD68. Second, selected eyes were processed for in situ hybridization with DNA probe specific to CMV. Third, an eye with clinically apparent CMV retinitis was submitted for electron microscopic examination. RESULTS At the site of retinal necrosis in those eyes with a clinical diagnosis of CMV retinitis, the immunohistochemical, in situ hybridization, and ultrastructural examinations revealed that CMV was present primarily in the Müller cells and in perivascular glial cells. Adjacent to these infected cells, focal areas of positive staining for CMV antigen were seen in the glial cells, neuronal cells, and retinal pigment epithelial cells. At these sites most of the retinal capillaries were devoid of endothelial cells. Few vessels located at the advancing margin of retinal necrosis showed the presence of viral proteins in the endothelial cells. CONCLUSIONS The present results indicate that retinal vascular endothelial cells could be the initial target in the development of viral retinitis, with subsequent spread of the infection to perivascular glia, Müller cells, and other retinal cells, including the retinal pigment epithelium.