Glomerular basement membrane (GBM) plays a crucial function in the ultrafiltration of blood plasma by the kidney. This function is impaired in Alport syndrome, a hereditary disorder that is caused by mutations in the gene encoding type IV collagen, but it is not known how the mutations lead to a defective GBM. In the present study, the supramolecular organization of type IV collagen of GBM was investigated. This was accomplished by using pseudolysin (EC 18.104.22.168) digestion to excise truncated triple-helical protomers for structural studies. Two distinct sets of truncated protomers were solubilized, one at 4 degrees C and the other at 25 degrees C, and their chain composition was determined by use of monoclonal antibodies. The 4 degrees C protomers comprise the alpha1(IV) and alpha2(IV) chains, whereas the 25 degrees C protomers comprised mainly alpha3(IV), alpha4(IV), and alpha5(IV) chains along with some alpha1(IV) and alpha2(IV) chains. The structure of the 25 degrees C protomers was examined by electron microscopy and was found to be characterized by a network containing loops and supercoiled triple helices, which are stabilized by disulfide cross-links between alpha3(IV), alpha4(IV), and alpha5(IV) chains. These results establish a conceptual framework to explain several features of the GBM abnormalities of Alport syndrome. In particular, the alpha3(IV). alpha4(IV).alpha5(IV) network, involving a covalent linkage between these chains, suggests a molecular basis for the conundrum in which mutations in the gene encoding the alpha5(IV) chain cause defective assembly of not only alpha5(IV) chain but also the alpha3(IV) and alpha4(IV) chains in the GBM of patients with Alport syndrome.