The monoclonal antibody 75d7, specific for type XII collagen (Sugrue, S.P., Gordon, M.K., Seyer, J., Dublet, B., van der Rest, M., and Olsen, B. R. (1989) J. Cell Biol., in press), was used to characterize the intact form of type XII collagen from chick embryo leg tendons. On an immunoblot of a 6% polyacrylamide gel of tendon extracts, one sharp band is recognized by the antibody at Mr = 220,000, while two fuzzy and poorly resolved bands are seen at Mr = 270,000 and Mr = 290,000. By immunoprecipitation of radiolabeled tendon culture media and electrophoresis of the precipitated material, bands with the same mobilities are observed, indicating that type XII collagen is not proteolytically processed in the extracellular space. Type XII collagen was extracted from tendons with 1 M NaCl in a Tris-HCl buffer and partially purified by concanavalin A-Sepharose and gel permeation chromatographies, using dot immunoblots to monitor the purification. Fractions highly enriched in bacterial collagenase-sensitive proteins with the same electrophoretic properties as type XII collagen were obtained. These fractions did not stain with Alcian blue and neither they nor the immunostained type XII collagen were affected by chondroitinase ABC digestion, indicating that type XII collagen is not a proteoglycan. A disulfide-bonded trimeric CNBr peptide was isolated by affinity chromatography on an antibody column and further purified by gel electrophoresis. Its NH2-terminal amino acid sequence was shown to be unique, demonstrating that type XII collagen is a homotrimer [alpha 1 (XII)]3. After bacterial collagenase digestion, both the immunopurified radiolabeled preparation and the purified tendon extract fraction showed by gel electrophoresis the presence of a large disulfide-bonded, 3 x 190-kDa, collagenase-resistant domain. Rotary shadowing and electron microscopy of the purified type XII fraction demonstrated that the molecule has the structure of a cross consisting of a 75 nm collagenase-sensitive tail, a central globule, and three 60 nm arms each ending in a small globule. After heat denaturation and renaturation, only a very large globule can be seen, attached to the triple helical tail. These results show that type XII collagen has a unique structure and is different from the other matrix constituents described so far.