Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a relatively common autosomal recessive neuromuscular disorder. We have identified de novo rearrangements in 7 (approximately 2%) index patients from 340 informative SMA families. In each, the rearrangements resulted in the absence of the telomeric copy of the survival motor neuron (SMN) gene (telSMN), in two cases accompanied by the loss of the neuronal apoptosis-inhibitory protein gene . Haplotype analysis revealed unequal recombination in four cases, with loss of markers Ag1-CA and C212, which are near the 5' ends of the SMN genes. In one case, an interchromosomal rearrangement involving both the SMN genes and a regrouping of Ag1-CA and C212 alleles must have occurred, suggesting either interchromosomal gene conversion or double recombination. In two cases, no such rearrangement was observed, but loss of telSMN plus Ag1-CA and C212 alleles in one case suggested intrachromosomal deletion or gene conversion. In six of the seven cases, the de novo rearrangement had occurred during paternal meiosis. Direct detection of de novo SMA mutations by molecular genetic means has allowed us to estimate for the first time the mutation rate for a recessive disorder in humans. The sex-averaged rate of 1.1 x 10(-4), arrived at in a proband-based approach, compares well with the rate of 0.9 x 10(-4) expected under a mutation-selection equilibrium for SMA. These findings have important implications for genetic counseling and prenatal diagnosis in that they emphasize the relevance of indirect genotype analysis in combination with direct SMN-gene deletion testing in SMA families.