BACKGROUND: Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome (SLOS) (MIM 270 400) is an autosomal recessive multiple congenital anomalies/mental retardation syndrome caused by mutations in the Delta7-sterol reductase (DHCR7, E.C.126.96.36.199) gene. The prevalence of SLOS has been estimated to range between 1:15000 and 1:60000 in populations of European origin. METHODS AND RESULTS: We have analysed the frequency, origin, and age of DHCR7 mutations in European populations. In 263 SLOS patients 10 common alleles (c.964-1G>C, p.Trp151X, p.Thr93Met, p.Val326Leu, p.Arg352Trp, p.Arg404Cys, p.Phe302Leu, p.Leu157Pro, p.Gly410Ser, p.Arg445Gln) were found to constitute approximately 80% of disease-causing mutations. As reported before, the mutational spectra differed significantly between populations, and frequency peaks of common mutations were observed in North-West (c.964-1G>C), North-East (p.Trp151X, p.Val326Leu) and Southern Europe (p.Thr93Met). SLOS was virtually absent from Finland. The analysis of nearly 8000 alleles from 10 different European populations confirmed a geographical distribution of DHCR7 mutations as reported in previous studies. The common Null mutations in Northern Europe (combined ca. 1:70) occurred at a much higher frequency than expected from the reported prevalence of SLOS. In contrast the most common mutation in Mediterranean SLOS patients (p.Thr93Met) had a low population frequency. Haplotypes were constructed for SLOS chromosomes, and for wild-type chromosomes of African and European origins using eight cSNPs in the DHCR7 gene. The DHCR7 orthologue was sequenced in eight chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and three microsatellites were analysed in 50 of the SLOS families in order to estimate the age of the three major SLOS-causing mutations. CONCLUSIONS: The results indicate a time of first appearance of c.964-1G>C and p.Trp151X some 3000 years ago in North-West and North-East Europe, respectively. The p.Thr93Met mutations on the J haplotype has probably first arisen approximately 6000 years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean. Together, it appears that a combination of founder effects, recurrent mutations, and drift have shaped the present frequency distribution of DHCR7 mutations in Europe.