The alpha 1(VI) and alpha 2(VI) chains, two of the three constituent chains of type VI collagen, are highly similar in size and domain structure. They are encoded by single-copy genes residing in close proximity on human chromosome 21. To study the evolution of the type VI collagen genes, we have isolated and characterized genomic clones coding for the triple-helical domains of the human alpha 1(VI) and alpha 2(VI) chains, which consist of 336 and 335 amino acid residues, respectively. Nucleotide sequencing indicates that, in both genes, the exons are multiples of 9 bp in length (including 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, and 90 bp) except for those encoding for regions with triple-helical interruptions. In addition, the introns are positioned between complete codons. The most predominant exon size is 63 bp, instead of 54 bp as seen in the fibrillar collagen genes. Of particular interest is the finding that the exon structures of the alpha 1(VI) and alpha 2(VI) genes are almost identical. A significant deviation is that a segment of 30 amino acid residues is encoded by two exons of 54 and 36 bp in the alpha 1(VI) gene, but by a single exon of 90 bp in the alpha 2(VI) gene. The exon arrangement therefore provides further evidence that the two genes have evolved from tandem gene duplication. Furthermore, comparison with the previously reported gene structure of the chick alpha 2(VI) chain indicates that the exon structure for the triple-helical domain of the alpha 2(VI) collagen is strictly conserved between human and chicken.