Demyelination may be induced by several different pathogenetic mechanisms. We have been utilizing mouse hepatitis virus (MHV) to study virus-induced demyelination in the central nervous system (CNS). To learn whether the different disease phenotypes in 4-week-old mice, caused by wild type (a model for fatal encephalomyelitis) or mutant ts8 (a model for primary demyelination), is due to an altered cellular tropism, we have developed an immunolabeling technique to evaluate critically the localization of MHV antigens in the unique cells of the CNS. Using mouse derived L-cells and primary neuronal cells in vitro, we determined an appropriate fixative (4% paraformaldehyde and 0.5% glutaraldehyde) that both preserved MHV antigenicity and cell structure. These studies in vitro showed the presence of MHV antigens on the surface of cells. Utilizing immunoperoxidase labeling as developed, we studied the localization of MHV antigens in vivo. MHV antigens associated with wild type (wt) virus were localized in neuronal cells as well as oligodendrocytes, which might account for the encephalomyelitis and primary demyelination, respectively. In contrast, MHV antigens associated with ts8 were localized rarely in neurons but commonly in oligodendrocytes. This might account for the uncommon occurrence of fatal encephalomyelitis, but the frequent presence of primary demyelination. Of interest was the finding of viral antigens during MHV infection in the cytoplasmic processes of oligodendrocytes surrounding intact myelin sheaths. We conclude that the different disease phenotypes caused by wt and mutant ts8 reflect differences in the cellular tropism of the two viruses for cells in the CNS.