Infection of neonatal mice with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) strain Armstrong (ARM) results in a lifelong persistent infection. Viral variants (cytotoxic T lymphocyte [CTL] negative, persistence positive [CTL- P+]) can be isolated from the lymphoid tissues of such mice. Adult mice inoculated with these CTL- P+ viruses fail to generate sufficient cytotoxic T lymphocytes to clear the acute infection and become persistently infected. By contrast, inoculation of a similar dose of the parental ARM virus (CTL+ P-) into adult mice leads to the generation of a vigorous virus-specific CTL response that clears the infection. Sequence analysis revealed a phenylalanine (Phe)-to-Leucine (Leu) change at amino acid 260 of the viral glycoprotein (GP) as a marker for variant viruses with the CTL- P+ phenotype. An RNA PCR assay that detects the variant GP sequence and thus allows kinetic studies of the selection of the Leu at position 260 was developed. We found that although CTL- P+ viruses are known to be lymphotropic, mature T and B cells were not required for the generation and selection of the Leu at GP amino acid 260. Kinetically, in mice infected at birth with LCMV ARM, as early as 3 weeks postinfection the Phe-to-Leu change was found in virus in the serum. By 5 weeks, viral nucleic acid obtained from peritoneal macrophages, spleen, lymph nodes, and liver showed the Phe-to-Leu change. At 2 months postinfection, the Leu change was detected in virus from the thymus, heart, lung, and kidney. By contrast, virus replicating in the central nervous system showed only minimal levels of the Leu change by 4 months and as long as 1 year postinfection. In vitro studies showed that the parental LCMV ARM CTL+ P- virus replicates more efficiently and outcompetes CTL- P+ virus in a cultured neuronal cell line, indicating that differential growth properties in neurons are likely the basis for the selection of the parental virus over the CTL- P+ variant in the brain.