Three alleles of the self-incompatibility gene of Nicotiana alata have been cloned and sequenced. A comparison of the sequences shows a surprisingly low level of homology (56%) and the presence of defined regions of homology and variability. The homologous regions include the N-terminal sequence, most of the cysteine residues and glycosylation sites, as well as other blocks throughout the sequence. We interpret these conserved regions as "framework" and nonconserved regions as "hypervariable," following the terminology used to describe analogous regions in the IgG supergene family. The low level of overall homology forms the basis of a general method for isolating S-allele-specific cDNAs. Allele-specific antibodies can be generated using synthetic peptides corresponding to one of the variable regions. When applied to sections of the pistil, these antibodies label the intercellular matrix in the stigma and transmitting tissue of the style and the cell walls in the epidermis of the placenta. HindIII digestion of genomic DNA generates a characteristic pattern of S-gene fragments for each genotype. These restriction fragment length polymorphisms can be used to assign S-genotype to progeny arising from breeding experiments.