We have compared the transmission characteristics of the two mouse-adapted scrapie isolates, ME7 and Rocky Mountain Laboratory (RML), in tga20 mice. These mice express elevated levels of PrP protein compared to wild-type mice and display a relatively short disease incubation period following intracerebral prion inoculation. Terminal prion disease in tga20 mice induced by ME7 or RML was characterized by a distinct pattern of clinical signs and different incubation times. High-dose RML inoculated intracerebrally into tga20 mice induced the most rapid onset of clinical signs, with mice succumbing to terminal disease after only 58 +/- 3 days. In contrast, high-dose ME7 gave a mean time to terminal disease of 74 +/- 0 days. Histological examination of brain sections from prion-inoculated tga20 mice at terminal disease showed that ME7 gave rise to a more general and extensive pattern of vacuolation than RML. Low-dose inoculum failed to induce terminal disease but did cause preclinical symptoms, including the appearance of reversible clinical signs. Some mice oscillated between showing no clinical signs and early clinical signs for many months but never progressed to terminal disease. Brain tissue from these mice with chronic subclinical prion disease, sacrificed at >200 days postinoculation, contained high levels of infectivity and showed the presence of PrP(Sc). Parallel analysis of brain tissue from mice with terminal disease showed similar levels of infectivity and detectable PrP(Sc). These results show that high levels of infectivity and the presence of the abnormal isomer of PrP can be detected in mice with subclinical disease following low-dose prion inoculation.