To determine the kinetic barrier in the folding of horse cytochrome c, a CO-liganded derivative of cytochrome c, called carbonmonoxycytochrome c, has been prepared by exploiting the thermodynamic reversibility of ferrocytochrome c unfolding induced by guanidinium hydrochloride (GdnHCl), pH 7. The CO binding properties of unfolded ferrocytochrome c, studied by 13C NMR and optical spectroscopy, are remarkably similar to those of native myoglobin and isolated chains of human hemoglobin. Equilibrium unfolding transitions of ferrocytochrome c in the presence and the absence of CO observed by both excitation energy transfer from the lone tryptophan to the ferrous heme and far-UV circular dichroism (CD) indicate no accumulation of structural intermediates to a detectable level. Values of thermodynamic parameters obtained by two-state analysis of fluorescence transitions are DeltaG(H2O) = 11.65(+/-1.13) kcal x mol(-1) and C(m) = 3.9(+/-0.1) M GdnHCl in the presence of CO, and DeltaG(H2O)=19.3(+/-0.5) kcal x mol(-1) and C(m) = 5.1(+/-0.1) M GdnHCl in the absence of CO, indicating destabilization of ferrocytochrome c by approximately 7.65 kcal x mol(-1) due to CO binding. The native states of ferrocytochrome c and carbonmonoxycytochrome c are nearly identical in terms of structure and conformation except for the Fe2+-M80 --> Fe2+-CO replacement. Folding and unfolding kinetics as a function of GdnHCl, studied by stopped-flow fluorescence, are significantly different for the two proteins. Both refold fast, but carbonmonoxycytochrome c refolds 2-fold faster (tau = 1092 micros at 10 degrees C) than ferrocytochrome c. Linear extrapolation of the folding rates to the ordinate of the chevron plot projects this value of tau to 407 micros. The unfolding rate of the former in water, estimated by extrapolation, is faster by more than 10 orders of magnitude. Significant differences are also observed in rate-denaturant gradients in the chevron. Formation and disruption of the Fe2+-M80 coordination contact clearly impose high-energy kinetic barriers to folding and unfolding of ferrocytochrome c. The unfolding barrier due to the Fe2+-M80 bond provides sufficient kinetic stability to the native state of ferrocytochrome c to perform its physiological function as an electron donor.