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The close association of Epstein–Barr virus (EBV) infection with non-keratinizing nasopharyngeal carcinomas and a subset of gastric carcinomas suggests that EBV infection is a crucial event in these cancers. The difficulties encountered in infecting and transforming primary epithelial cells in experimental systems suggest that the role of EBV in epithelial malignancies is complex and multifactorial in nature. Genetic alterations in the premalignant epithelium may support the establishment of latent EBV infection, which is believed to be an initiation event. Oncogenic properties have been reported in multiple EBV latent genes. TheBamH1 Arightwards transcripts (BARTs) and theBART-encoded microRNAs (miR-BARTs) are highly expressed in EBV-associated epithelial malignancies and may induce malignant transformation. However, enhanced proliferation may not be the crucial function of EBV infection in epithelial malignancies, at least in the early stages of cancer development. EBV-encoded gene products may confer anti-apoptotic properties and promote the survival of infected premalignant epithelial cells harbouring genetic alterations. Multiple EBV-encoded microRNAs have been reported to have immune evasion functions. Genetic alterations in host cells, as well as inflammatory stroma, could modulate the expression of EBV genes and alter the growth properties of infected premalignant epithelial cells, encouraging their selection during carcinogenesis.© 2014 The Authors.The Journal of Pathologypublished by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland.