Leukemogenesis induced by slowly transforming retroviruses is a multistep process which is difficult to dissect because of its long latency and the problem of distinguishing oncogenic from differentiative events. A method for leukemia induction in mice has been developed using a cell line isolated following in vitro infection with the slowly transforming murine radiation leukemia virus (RadLV). The CI-V13D cell line represents a lymphoid precursor cell type at an early stage in cell transformation and can develop subcutaneous tumors in irradiated syngeneic hosts but not in allogeneic mice even after sublethal irradiation. Selective growth in allogeneic (CBA/H) mouse thymus has been demonstrated, but this requires pre-irradiation of the recipient. Upon reisolation from CBA/H thymus, C1-V13D progeny clones displayed increased tumorigenic potential in comparison to the 'parental' CI-V13D cell line. Tumorigenicity was shown to increase with serial passage through thymus and electron micrographs of clones also revealed increased production of C-type retroviruses. This new model for oncogenic progression should be more amenable to analysis of early genetic changes occurring during replication of leukemia in the thymus.