Exendin-4 is a natural, 39-residue peptide first isolated from the salivary secretions of a Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum) that has some pharmacological properties similar to glucagon-like-peptide-1 (GLP-1). This paper reports differences in the structural preferences of these two peptides. For GLP-1 in aqueous buffer (pH 3.5 or 5.9), the concentration dependence of circular dichroism spectra suggests that substantial helicity results only as a consequence of helix bundle formation. In contrast, exendin-4 is significantly helical in aqueous buffer even at the lowest concentration examined (2.3 microM). The pH dependence of the helical signal for exendin-4 indicates that helicity is enhanced by a more favorable sequence alignment of oppositely charged sidechains. Both peptides become more helical upon addition of either lipid micelles or fluoroalcohols. The stabilities of the helices were assessed from the thermal gradient of ellipticity (partial differential theta(221)/partial differential T values); on this basis, the exendin helix does not melt appreciably until temperatures significantly above ambient. The extent of helix formation for exendin-4 in aqueous buffer (and the thermal stability of the resulting helix) suggests the presence of a stable helix-capping interaction which was localized to the C-terminal segment by NMR studies of NH exchange protection. Solvent effects on the thermal stability of the helix indicate that the C-terminal capping interaction is hydrophobic in nature. The absence of this C-capping interaction and the presence of a flexible, helix-destabilizing glycine at residue 16 in GLP-1 are the likely causes of the greater fragility of the monomeric helical state of GLP-1. The intramolecular hydrophobic clustering in exendin-4 also appears to decrease the extent of helical aggregate formation.