Molecular dissection was employed to identify minimal independent folding units in dihydrofolate reductase (DHFR) from Escherichia coli. Eight overlapping fragments of DHFR, spanning the entire sequence and ranging in size from 36 to 123 amino acids, were constructed by chemical cleavage. These fragments were designed to examine the effect of tethering multiple elements of secondary structure on folding and to test if the secondary structural domains represent autonomous folding units. CD and fluorescence spectroscopy demonstrated that six fragments containing up to a total of seven alpha-helices or beta-strands and, in three cases, the adenine binding domain (residues 37-86), are largely disordered. A stoichiometric mixture of the two fragments comprising the large discontinuous domain, 1-36 and 87-159, also showed no evidence for folding beyond that observed for the isolated fragments. A fragment containing residues 1-107 appears to have secondary and tertiary structure; however, spontaneous self-association made it impossible to determine if this structure solely reflects the behavior of the monomeric form. In contrast, a monomeric fragment spanning residues 37-159 possesses significant secondary and tertiary structure. The urea-induced unfolding of fragment 37-159 in the presence of 0.5 M ammonium sulfate was found to be a well-defined, two-state process. The observation that fragment 37-159 can adopt a stable native fold with unique, aromatic side-chain packing is quite striking because residues 1-36 form an integral part of the structural core of the full-length protein.