Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy has been used to characterize opening reactions and stabilities of individual base pairs in two related DNA structures. The first is the triplex structure formed by the DNA 31-mer 5'-AGAGAGAACCCCTTCTCTCTTTTTCTCTCTT-3'. The structure belongs to the YRY (or parallel) family of triple helices. The second structure is the hairpin double helix formed by the DNA 20-mer 5'-AGAGAGAACCCCTTCTCTCT-3' and corresponds to the duplex part of the YRY triplex. The rates of exchange of imino protons with solvent in the two structures have been measured by magnetization transfer from water and by real-time exchange at 10 degrees C in 100 mM NaCl and 5 mM MgCl2 at pH 5.5 and in the presence of two exchange catalysts. The results indicate that the exchange of imino protons in protonated cytosines is most likely limited by the opening of Hoogsteen C+G base pairs. The base pair opening parameters estimated from imino proton exchange rates suggest that the stability of individual Hoogsteen base pairs in the DNA triplex is comparable to that of Watson-Crick base pairs in double-helical DNA. In the triplex structure, the exchange rates of imino protons in Watson-Crick base pairs are up to 5000-fold lower than those in double-helical DNA. This result suggests that formation of the triplex structure enhances the stability of Watson-Crick base pairs by up to 5 kcal/mol. This stabilization depends on the specific location of each triad in the triplex structure.