Basement membranes are thin layers of matrix separating parenchymal cells from connective tissue. Their ultrastructure consists of a three-dimensional network of irregular, fuzzy strands referred to as "cords"; the cord thickness averages 3-4 nm. Immunostaining reveals that the cords are composed of at least five substances: collagen IV, laminin, heparan sulfate proteoglycan, entactin, and fibronectin. Collagen IV has been identified as a filament of variable thickness persisting after the other components have been removed by plasmin digestion or salt extraction. Heparan sulfate proteoglycan appears as sets of two parallel lines, referred to as "double tracks," which run at the surface of the cords. Laminin is detected in the cords as diffuse material within which thin wavy lines may be distinguished. The entactin and fibronectin present within the cords have not been identified as visible structures. The ability of laminin, heparan sulfate proteoglycan, fibronectin, and entactin to bind to collagen IV has been demonstrated by visualization with rotary shadowing and/or biochemical studies. Incubation of three of these substances-collagen IV, laminin (with small entactin contamination), and proteoglycan-at 35 degrees C for 1 hr resulted in a precipitate that was sectioned for electron microscopic examination and processed for gold immunolabeling for each of the three incubated substances. Three structures are present in the precipitate: 1) a lacework, exclusively composed of heparan sulfate proteoglycan in the form of two parallel lines, similar to double tracks; 2) semi-solid, irregular accumulations, composed of the three initial substances distributed on a cord network; and 3) convoluted sheets, which are also composed of the three initial substances distributed on a cord network but which, in addition, have the uniform appearance and thickness of the lamina densa of basement membrane. Hence these sheets are closely similar to the main component of authentic basement membranes.