The alpha 1-protease inhibitor, or alpha-antitrypsin (AAT), a major plasma inhibitor of leukocyte elastase and bacterial proteases, is encoded at the PI locus on chromosome 14 (14q24.3-q32.1). A deficiency of AAT in individuals homozygous for the PI Z allele occurs in about 1 in 2,000-8,000 caucasians and is associated with an increased risk of early adult onset emphysema and liver disease in childhood. We have now used DNA polymorphisms associated with the AAT gene to investigate the origin of the PI Z allele. Using two genomic probes extending into the 5' and 3' flanking regions, respectively, we have identified eight polymorphic restriction sites. Extensive linkage disequilibrium occurs throughout the probed region with the PI Z allele, but not with normal PI M alleles. The Z allele occurs mainly with one haplotype, indicating a single, relatively recent, origin in caucasians.