A series of polypeptides containing 9, 12, 16, 19, 23, 26, 30, 33, and 35 amino acid residues was designed to investigate the effects of peptide chain length on the formation and stability of two-stranded alpha-helical dimers or coiled coils. These peptides were synthesized by the solid-phase method, purified by reversed-phase high-performance liquid chromatography (RP-HPLC), and characterized by RP-HPLC, amino acid composition analysis, and mass spectrometry. The amphipathic alpha-helical peptides were designed to dimerize by interchain hydrophobic interactions at positions a and d and interchain salt bridges between lysine and glutamic acid residues at positions e and g of the repeating heptad sequence of Glu-Ile-Glu-Ala-Leu-Lys-Ala (g-a-b-c-d-e-f). The ability of these peptides to form alpha-helical structures in the presence and absence of a helix-inducing reagent (trifluoroethanol) was monitored by circular dichroism spectroscopy. The helicity of the peptides increased with increasing chain length in a cooperative manner. A minimum of three heptads corresponding to six helical turns was required for a peptide to adopt the two-stranded alpha-helical coiled coil conformation in aqueous medium. The increased stability of the peptides as a result of an increase in hydrophobic interactions (chain length) was demonstrated by the shift in the transitions of the guanidine hydrochloride (Gdn.HCl) denaturation and thermal unfolding profiles. The concentrations of denaturant (Gdn.HCl) required to achieve 50% denaturation are 3.2, 4.9, 6.9, and 7.5 M for peptides 23r, 26r, 30r, and 33r, respectively, in aqueous medium. However, the effect of a chain length increase on coiled-coil stability was not additive. The melting temperature, Tm, at which 50% of the helicity is lost, increased by 34 degrees C in changing the peptide chain length from 23 to 26; however, that shift was only 14 degrees C when the chain length was increased from 30 to 33 residues. These results are consistent with a chain length dependent cooperative folding of the peptides into coiled coils.