We have analysed the atomic structures of Fab and VL fragments of immunoglobulins to determine the relationship between their amino acid sequences and the three-dimensional structures of their antigen binding sites. We identify the relatively few residues that, through their packing, hydrogen bonding or the ability to assume unusual phi, psi or omega conformations, are primarily responsible for the main-chain conformations of the hypervariable regions. These residues are found to occur at sites within the hypervariable regions and in the conserved beta-sheet framework. Examination of the sequences of immunoglobulins of unknown structure shows that many have hypervariable regions that are similar in size to one of the known structures and contain identical residues at the sites responsible for the observed conformation. This implies that these hypervariable regions have conformations close to those in the known structures. For five of the hypervariable regions, the repertoire of conformations appears to be limited to a relatively small number of discrete structural classes. We call the commonly occurring main-chain conformations of the hypervariable regions "canonical structures". The accuracy of the analysis is being tested and refined by the prediction of immunoglobulin structures prior to their experimental determination.