The sequences of the carboxy-terminal extensions (COOH-propeptides) of at least one chain of all of the major human procollagens have only recently been deduced, and include those of the interstitial (alpha 1(I), alpha 2(I), alpha 1(II), alpha 1(III)), basement membrane (alpha 1(IV)) and pericellular (alpha 2(V)) procollagens. Comparisons of DNA and protein sequences, corresponding to these COOH-propeptides domains, established the early divergence of the basement membrane alpha 1(IV) COOH-propeptide from the corresponding sequences of the interstitial and pericellular procollagens. The latter are relatively highly conserved and share 58% primary peptide sequence similarities, whereas sequence similarities relative to alpha 1(IV) are limited. Hydropathy profiles and secondary structure potentials further emphasize the clustering of conserved and variable regions among the interstitial and pericellular COOH-propeptides, and provided further evidence for significant structural differences between these sequences and the alpha 1(IV) COOH-propeptide. The most highly conserved sequences of the alpha 1(I), alpha 2(I), alpha 1(II), alpha 1(III) and alpha 2(V) COOH-propeptides include regions surrounding the carbohydrate attachment site, cysteine-containing regions and the COOH-terminal sequences. Cysteinyl, tyrosyl and tryptophanyl residues were found to be highly conserved as were most charged residues. Localization of variable regions, in general, occurs within hydrophilic sequences with high beta-turn potentials that are proximal to intron/exon splice junctions. The most variable sequences are associated with the telopeptides and adjoining NH2-terminal portions of the COOH-propeptides as demonstrated by predictive secondary structure analyses. These results, combined with similar analyses of abnormal alpha 2(I) COOH-propeptide (osteogenesis imperfecta) permitted the identification of subsequences that are likely to be a prerequisite for COOH-propeptide functions, namely procollagen chain recognition and nucleation sites for triple helix formation. These functions are also common to the alpha 1(IV) COOH-propeptide; however, the lack of cleavage of this region and its additional postulated structural role in extracellular matrix interactions likely account for its divergent primary and secondary structure.