The 38 kDa survival motor neuron (SMN) protein is encoded by two ubiquitously expressed genes: telomeric SMN (SMN(T)) and centromeric SMN (SMN(C)). Mutations in SMN(T), but not SMN(C), cause proximal spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), an autosomal recessive disorder that results in loss of motor neurons. SMN is found in the cytoplasm and nucleus. The nuclear form is located in structures termed gems. Using a panel of anti-SMN antibodies, we demonstrate that the SMN protein is expressed from both the SMN(T) and SMN(C) genes. Western blot analysis of fibroblasts from SMA patients with various clinical severities of SMA showed a moderate reduction in the amount of SMN protein, particularly in type I (most severe) patients. Immunocytochemical analysis of SMA patient fibroblasts indicates a significant reduction in the number of gems in type I SMA patients and a correlation of the number of gems with clinical severity. This correlation to phenotype using primary fibroblasts may serve as a useful diagnostic tool in an easily accessible tissue. SMN is expressed at high levels in brain, kidney and liver, moderate levels in skeletal and cardiac muscle, and low levels in fibroblasts and lymphocytes. In SMA patients, the SMN level was moderately reduced in muscle and lymphoblasts. In contrast, SMN was expressed at high levels in spinal cord from normals and non-SMA disease controls, but was reduced 100-fold in spinal cord from type I patients. The marked reduction of SMN in type I SMA spinal cords is consistent with the features of this motor neuron disease. We suggest that disruption of SMN(T) in type I patients results in loss of SMN from motor neurons, resulting in the degeneration of these neurons.