Collagen is the most abundant protein in animals. The conformational stability of the collagen triple helix is enhanced by the hydroxyl group of its prevalent (2S,4R)-4-hydroxyproline residues. For 25 years, the prevailing paradigm had been that this enhanced stability is due to hydrogen bonds mediated by bridging water molecules. We tested this hypothesis with synthetic collagen triple helices containing 4-fluoroproline residues. The results have unveiled a wealth of stereoelectronic effects that contribute markedly to the stability of collagen, as well as other proteins. This new understanding is leading to synthetic collagens for a variety of applications in biotechnology and biomedicine.