Tay-Sachs disease is an autosomal recessive disorder affecting the central nervous system. The disorder results from mutations in the gene encoding the alpha-subunit of beta-hexosaminidase A, a lysosomal enzyme composed of alpha and beta polypeptides. Seventy-eight mutations in the Hex A gene have been described and include 65 single base substitutions, one large and 10 small deletions, and two small insertions. Because these mutations cripple the catalytic activity of beta-hexosaminidase to varying degrees, Tay-Sachs disease displays clinical heterogeneity. Forty-five of the single base substitutions cause missense mutations; 39 of these are disease causing, three are benign but cause a change in phenotype, and three are neutral polymorphisms. Six nonsense mutations and 14 splice site lesions result from single base substitutions, and all but one of the splice site lesions cause a severe form of Tay-Sachs disease. Eight frameshift mutations arise from six deletion- and two insertion-type lesions. One of these insertions, consisting of four bases within exon 11, is found in 80% of the carriers of Tay-Sachs disease from the Ashkenazi Jewish population, an ethnic group that has a 10-fold higher gene frequency for a severe form of the disorder than the general population. A very large deletion, 7.5 kilobases, including all of exon 1 and portions of DNA upstream and downstream from that exon, is the major mutation found in Tay-Sachs disease carriers from the French Canadian population, a geographic isolate displaying an elevated carrier frequency. Most of the other mutations are confined to single pedigrees. Identification of these mutations has permitted more accurate carrier information, prenatal diagnosis, and disease prognosis. In conjunction with a precise tertiary structure of the enzyme, these mutations could be used to gain insight into the structure-function relationships of the lysosomal enzyme.