Collagen IV is a major component of vertebrate basal laminae (BLs). Studies in humans have revealed a family of genes encoding alpha 1- alpha 6 collagen IV chains and implicated alpha 3-alpha 6 in disease processes (Goodpasture and Alport syndromes and diffuse leiomyomatosis). To extend studies of these components to an experimentally accessible animal, we cloned cDNAs encoding partial collagen alpha 3, alpha 4, and alpha 5(IV) chains from the mouse. Ribonuclease protection assays showed that all three genes were expressed at highest levels in kidney and lung; alpha 5(IV) was also expressed at high levels in heart. We then made antibodies specific for each collagen IV chain. Immunohistochemical studies of several tissues revealed many combinations of collagen IV chains; however, alpha 3 and alpha 4 (IV) were always coexpressed, and only appeared in BLs that were alpha 5(IV) positive. The alpha 3-alpha 5(IV) chains were frequently but not exclusively associated with the S (beta 2) chain of laminin, as were the alpha 1, 2 (IV) collagen chains with laminin B1 (beta 1). An analysis of developing rat kidney BLs showed that newly formed (S-shaped) nephrons harbored collagen alpha 1 and alpha 2(IV) and laminin B1; maturing (capillary loop stage) BLs contained collagen alpha 1-alpha 5(IV) and laminin B1 and S-laminin; and mature glomerular BLs contained mainly collagen alpha 3-alpha 5(IV) and S-laminin. Thus, collagen alpha 1 and alpha 2(IV) and laminin B1 appear to be fetal components of the glomerular BL, and there is a developmental switch to collagen alpha 3-alpha 5(IV) and S-laminin expression.