Type VI collagen is a heterotrimer composed of three polypeptide chains, alpha 1(VI), alpha 2(VI), and alpha 3(VI). By immunological screening of an expression cDNA library, human cDNAs specific for each chain were isolated and characterized. Major mRNA species encoding these chains have a size of 4.2 kb (alpha 1), 3.5 kb (alpha 2), and 8.5 kb (alpha 3). The cDNA clones were also used to map the genes on human chromosomes by somatic cell hybrid analysis and in situ hybridization. The alpha 1 (VI) and alpha 2(VI) collagen genes were both located on chromosome 21, in band q223. This represents a third example of a possible physical proximity of two collagen loci. The alpha 3(VI) collagen gene was localized to chromosome 2, in the region 2q37. The alpha 3(VI) collagen gene is the fifth extracellular matrix gene to be localized to 2q, as four other extracellular matrix genes--i.e., the alpha 1(III) and alpha 2(V) collagen genes, the elastin gene, and the fibronectin gene--have been previously mapped to the distal region of the long arm of chromosome 2.