Reduced and denatured hirudin (65 amino acids and 3 disulfides) refolds in vitro to become an active molecule. The folding process adopts a mechanism of "trial and error" without predominant pathways. Throughout the entire folding process, the 6 cysteines were about equally involved in the disulfide shuffling. Among the first 20% of 3-disulfide species accumulated during the early phase of refolding, two-thirds were inactive and were reshuffled in the presence of thiol catalyst to regain correct disulfide pairing. When refolding was performed in the presence of strong denaturant (guanidinium chloride) without thiol catalyst, 8% of the active hirudin was obtained. This figure is close to the probability (6.7%) that would be expected from the random disulfide pairing of a molecule containing 6 sulfhydryl groups.