Myotonic dystrophy is a common dominant disorder (global incidence of 1:8,000) with variable onset and a protean nature of symptoms mainly involving progressive muscle wasting, myotonia and cataracts. To define the molecular defect, we have cloned the essential region of chromosome 19q13.3, including proximal and distal markers in a 700-kilobase contig formed by overlapping cosmids and yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs). The central part of the contig bridges an area of about 350 kilobases between two new flanking crossover borders. This segment has been extensively characterized through the isolation of five YAC clones and the subsequent subcloning in cosmids from which a detailed EcoRI, HindIII, MluI and NotI restriction map has been derived. Two genomic probes and two homologous complementary DNA probes were isolated using the cosmids. These probes are all situated within approximately 10 kilobases of genomic DNA and detect an unstable genomic segment in myotonic dystrophy patients. The length variation in this segment shows similarities to the instability seen at the fragile X locus. The physical map location and the genetic characteristics of the length polymorphism is compatible with a direct role in the pathogenesis of myotonic dystrophy.