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The centromeric regions of all human chromosomes are characterized by distinct subsets of a diverse tandemly repeated DNA family, alpha satellite. On human chromosome 17, the predominant form of alpha satellite is a 2.7-kilobase-pair higher-order repeat unit consisting of 16 alphoid monomers. We present the complete nucleotide sequence of the 16-monomer repeat, which is present in 500 to 1,000 copies per chromosome 17, as well as that of a less abundant 15-monomer repeat, also from chromosome 17. These repeat units were approximately 98% identical in sequence, differing by the exclusion of precisely 1 monomer from the 15-monomer repeat. Homologous unequal crossing-over is suggested as a probable mechanism by which the different repeat lengths on chromosome 17 were generated, and the putative site of such a recombination event is identified. The monomer organization of the chromosome 17 higher-order repeat unit is based, in part, on tandemly repeated pentamers. A similar pentameric suborganization has been previously demonstrated for alpha satellite of the human X chromosome. Despite the organizational similarities, substantial sequence divergence distinguishes these subsets. Hybridization experiments indicate that the chromosome 17 and X subsets are more similar to each other than to the subsets found on several other human chromosomes. We suggest that the chromosome 17 and X alpha satellite subsets may be related components of a larger alphoid subfamily which have evolved from a common ancestral repeat into the contemporary chromosome-specific subsets.