A highly unusual collagen was secreted by fibroblasts cultured from 150- and 270-d-old fetal calf nuchal ligaments. Purification revealed that this protein (which may be synthesized in a higher molecular weight form) was precipitated at unusually high concentrations of ammonium sulfate and was also eluted from DEAE-cellulose at greater salt concentrations than were types I and III procollagens. On SDS PAGE, the collagenous protein exhibited an Mr of approximately 12,750 that was not altered in the presence of reducing agent. The low molecular weight collagen (FCL-1) was sensitive to bacterial collagenase and had a [3H]glycine content comparable to that found in type I procollagen, although the [3H]Hyp to [3H]Pro ratio was 0.43. FCL-1 was not cleaved by human skin collagenase, mast cell protease, trypsin, Staphylococcal V8 protease, or proteinase K at 37 degrees C. The collagen was susceptible to trypsin, but not to V8 protease, only after heating at 80 degrees C for 30 min. Preliminary structural studies indicate that FCL-1 was resistant to cleavage by CNBr but exhibited limited proteolysis with pepsin. Both 150- and 270-d-old fibroblasts produced comparable levels of interstitial (types I and III) procollagens, which comprised approximately 70% of the total protein secreted into the culture medium. However, 270-d-old (term) fibroblasts secreted approximately 50% more FCL-1, as percent of total culture medium protein, in comparison to the cells from the earlier gestational stage. This collagen may therefore play a role in the development of the nuchal ligament.