Hsp47, a 47 kDa heat shock protein whose expression level parallels that of collagen, has been regarded as a collagen-specific molecular chaperone. Studies from other laboratories have established the association of Hsp47 with the nascent as well as the triple-helical procollagen molecule in the endoplasmic reticulum and its dissociation from procollagen in the Golgi. One of several roles suggested for Hsp47 in collagen biosynthesis is the prevention of aggregation of procollagen in the endoplasmic reticulum. However, no experimental evidence has been available to verify this suggestion. In the present study we have followed the aggregation of mature triple-helical collagen molecules into fibrils by using turbidimetric measurements in the absence and presence of Hsp47. In the pH range 6-7, fibril formation of type I collagen, as monitored by turbidimetry, proceeds with a lag of approx. 10 min and levels off by approx. 60 min. The addition of Hsp47 at pH 7 effectively inhibits fibril formation at and above a 1:1 molar ratio of Hsp47 to triple-helical collagen. This inhibition is markedly pH-dependent, being significantly diminished at pH 6. CD and fluorescence spectral data of Hsp47 in the pH range 4.2-7.4 reveal a significant alteration in its structure at pH values below 6.2, with a decrease in alpha-helix and an increase in beta-structure. This conformational change is likely to be the basis of the decreased binding of Hsp47 to collagen in vitro at pH 6.3 as well as its inability to inhibit collagen fibril formation at this pH. Our results also provide a functional assay for Hsp47 that can be used in studies on collagen and Hsp47 interactions.