We studied the mechanism of ring chromosome 21 (r(21)) formation in 13 patients (11 unique r(21)s), consisting of 7 from five families with familial r(21) and 6 with de novo r(21). The copy number of chromosome 21 sequences in the rings of these patients was determined by quantitative dosage analyses for 13 loci on 21q. Nine of 11 r(21)s, including the 5 familial r(21)s, showed no evidence for duplication of 21q sequences but did show molecular evidence of partial deletion of 21q. These data were consistent with the breakage and reunion of short- and long-arm regions to form the r(21), resulting in deletion of varying amounts of 21q22.1 to 21qter. The data from one individual who had a Down syndrome phenotype were consistent with asymmetric breakage and reunion of 21q sequences from an intermediate isochromosome or Robertsonian translocation chromosome as reported by Wong et al. Another patient, who also exhibited Down syndrome, showed evidence of a third mechanism of ring formation. The likely initial event was breakage and reunion of the short and long arms, resulting in a small r(21), followed by a sister-chromatid exchange resulting in a double-sized and symmetrically dicentric r(21). The phenotype of patients correlated well with the extent of deletion or duplication of chromosome 21 sequences. These data demonstrate three mechanisms of r(21) formation and show that the phenotype of r(21) patients varies with the extent of chromosome 21 monosomy or trisomy.