To determine molecular architecture of the type IV collagen network in situ, the human amniotic basement membrane has been studied en face in stereo relief by high resolution unidirectional metal shadow casting aided by antibody decoration and morphometry. The appearance of the intact basement membrane is that of a thin sheet in which there are regions of branching strands. Salt extraction further exposes these strands to reveal an extensive irregular polygonal network that can be specifically decorated with gold-conjugated anti-type IV collagen antibody. At high magnification one sees that the network, which contains integral (9-11 nm net diameter) globular domains, is formed in great part by lateral association of monomolecular filaments to form branching strands of variable but narrow diameters. Branch points are variably spaced apart by an average of 45 nm with 4.4 globular domains per micron of strand length. Monomolecular filaments (1.7-nm net diameter) often appear to twist around each other along the strand axis; we propose that super helix formation is an inherent characteristic of lateral assembly. A previous study (Yurchenco, P. D., and H. Furthmayr. 1984. Biochemistry. 23:1839) presented evidence that purified murine type IV collagen dimers polymerize to form polygonal arrays of laterally as well as end-domain-associated molecules. The architecture of this polymer is similar to the network seen in the amnion, with lateral binding a major contributor to each. Thus, to a first approximation, isolated type IV collagen can reconstitute in vitro the polymeric molecular architecture it assumes in vivo.