As other deltaretroviruses HTLV-1 replication in vivo includes a first short step of reverse transcription that is followed by the persistent clonal expansion of infected cells. In vivo these cells include the CD4+ and CD8+ lymphocytes yet the virus induces adult T cell leukemia/lymphoma (ATLL) that is regularly of the CD4+ phenotype. Cloned infected cells from individuals without malignancy possess a dramatic increase in spontaneous proliferation, which predominated with CD8+ lymphocytes and depends on the amount of tax mRNA. In fact, the clonal expansion of HTLV-1 positive CD8+ and CD4+ lymphocytes relies on two distinct mechanisms: infection prevented cell death in the former whereas recruiting the latter into the cell cycle. Furthermore infected tax-expressing CD4+ lymphocytes cumulate cellular defects characteristic of genetic instability. Therefore, HTLV-1 infection establishes a preleukemic phenotype that is restricted to CD4+ infected clones. Investigating the mechanisms underlying apoptosis, cell cycling and DNA repair in cloned cells from naturally infected individuals will permit to deciphering the molecular pathogenesis of HTLV-1 infection.