In all vertebrate species examined to date, rearrangement and somatic modification of gene segmental elements that encode portions of the antigen-combining sites of immunoglobulins are integral components of the generation of antibody diversity. In the phylogenetically primitive cartilaginous fishes, gene segments encoding immunoglobulin heavy and light chain loci are arranged in multiple clusters, in which segmental elements are separated by only 300-400 bp. In some cases, segmental elements are joined in the germline of nonlymphoid cells (joined genes). Both genomic library screening and direct amplification of genomic DNA have been used to characterize at least 89 different type I light chain gene clusters in the skate, Raja. Analyses of predicted nucleotide sequences and predicted peptide structures are consistent with the distribution of genes into different sequence groups. Predicted amino acid sequence differences are preferentially distributed in complementarity-determining versus framework regions, and replacement-type substitutions exceed neutral substitutions. When specific germline sequences are related to the sequences of individual cDNAs, it is apparent that the joined genes are expressed and are potentially somatically mutated. No evidence was found for the presence of any type I light chain gene in Raja that is not germline joined. The type I light chain gene clusters in Raja appear to represent a novel gene system in which combinatorial and junctional diversity are absent.