Although not all mucopolysaccharidosis type VII (MPS VII) neonates present with hydrops fetalis or with related symptoms, hydrops fetalis is a common form of presentation of this mucopolysaccharidosis. We used reverse-transcription-PCR-SSCP and direct sequencing to screen for mutations in the human beta-glucuronidase cDNA of 17 MPS VII patients with severe presentation of the disease. Mutations resulting in an unstable mRNA were detected in genomic DNA with direct sequencing of the PCR-amplified beta-glucuronidase exons. We found extensive genetic heterogeneity in MPS VII alleles: in addition to 6 or 12 previously reported mutations (L176F, R216W, R357X, R382C, W507X, and W627C), we detected 14 undescribed mutations in the beta-glucuronidase coding region that produce MPS VII alleles (G136R, E150K, S312X, Y320S, Y320C, H351Y, R382H, R374C, R435P, R477W, G572D, Y508C, K606N and 1900 delta GA). The mutations in hydropic fetuses were widely scattered in the beta-glucuronidase gene. Analysis of three polymorphic sites of the mutant alleles (1766T/C, 1972C/T and a new 1091+27C/G polymorphism) allowed exclusion of identity by descent for some recurrent mutations. Three of four mutations introducing a premature translation stop codon were found to affect mRNA abundance and/or structure. Expression studies provided evidence for the causal relationship between each of the mutations found in MPS VII alleles and the enzyme deficiency, in that all mutations identified exhibited markedly reduced enzyme activity expressed in COS7 cells following transfection with the mutant cDNA.