Type IV collagen forms a network that provides the major structural support of basement membranes. We have determined the nucleotide alterations and phenotypes of 17 mutant alleles of the Caenorhabditis elegans alpha 2(IV) collagen gene let-2. All 17 mutations are within the triple helical (Gly-X-Y) repeat domain of the molecule. Fifteen of the mutations are replacements of Gly-X-Y repeat glycines with aspartate, glutamate or arginine, and they cause a wide range of phenotypes. The mildest alleles are nearly wild-type at 15 and 20 degrees C but embryonic lethal at 25 degrees C, while the most severe allele is embryonic lethal at all three temperatures. Mutations resulting in severe phenotypes are generally located in areas of lower calculated thermal stability of the type IV collagen molecule. An alanine to threonine substitution at position X of a Gly-X-Y triplet immediately following an interruption results in a severe phenotype. This mutation is unusual because substitutions at positions X or Y have not generally been found to cause strong phenotypes in C. elegans or human collagens. An intron splice acceptor mutation causes a strict embryonic lethal phenotype, but does not completely abolish gene function. Pairs of independent mutations affect each of three glycines, indicating a non-random distribution of mutations in the molecule. It is suggested that this clustering results because many glycine substitutions may cause dominant lethal or sterile phenotypes.