To investigate the role of integrin alpha 7 in muscle pathology, we used a "candidate gene" approach in a large cohort of muscular dystrophy/myopathy patients. Antibodies against the intracellular domain of the integrin alpha 7A and alpha 7B were used to stain muscle biopsies from 210 patients with muscular dystrophy/myopathy of unknown etiology. Levels of alpha 7A and alpha 7B integrin were found to be decreased in 35 of 210 patients (approximately 17%). In six of these patients no integrin alpha 7B was detected. Screening for alpha 7B mutation in 30 of 35 patients detected only one integrin alpha 7 missense mutation (the mutation on the second allele was not found) in a patient presenting with a congenital muscular dystrophy-like phenotype. No integrin alpha 7 gene mutations were identified in all of the other patients showing integrin alpha 7 deficiency. In the process of mutation analysis, we identified a novel integrin alpha 7 isoform presenting 72-bp deletion. This isoform results from a partial deletion of exon 21 due to the use of a cryptic splice site generated by a G to A missense mutation at nucleotide position 2644 in integrin alpha 7 cDNA. This spliced isoform is present in about 12% of the chromosomes studied. We conclude that secondary integrin alpha 7 deficiency is rather common in muscular dystrophy/myopathy of unknown etiology, emphasizing the multiple mechanisms that may modulate integrin function and stability.