Recent studies with model peptides and statistical analyses of the crystal structures of membrane proteins have shown that buried polar interactions contribute significantly to the stabilization of the three-dimensional structures of membrane proteins. Here, we probe how the location of these polar groups along the transmembrane helices affect their free energies of interaction. Asn residues were placed singly and in pairs at three positions within a model transmembrane helix, which had previously been shown to support the formation of trimers in micelles. The model helix was designed to form a transmembrane coiled coil, with Val side chains at the "a" positions of the heptad repeat. Variants of this peptide were prepared in which an Asn residue was introduced at one or more of the "a" positions, and their free energies of association were determined by analytical ultracentrifugation. When placed near the middle of the transmembrane helix, the formation of trimers was stabilized by at least -2.0 kcal/mol per Asn side chain. When the Asn was placed at the interface between the hydrophobic and polar regions of the peptide, the substitution was neither stabilizing nor destabilizing (0.0 +/- 0.5 kcal/mol of monomer). Finally, it has previously been shown that a Val-for-Asn mutation in a water-soluble coiled coil destabilizes the structure by approximately 1.5 kcal/mol of monomer [Acharya, A., et al. (2002) Biochemistry 41, 14122-14131]. Thus, the headgroup region of a micelle appears to have a conformational impact intermediate between that of bulk water and the apolar region of micelle. A similarly large dependence on the location of the polar residues was found in a statistical survey of helical transmembrane proteins. The tendency of different types of residues to be buried in the interiors versus being exposed to lipids was analyzed. Asn and Gln show a very strong tendency to be buried when they are located near the middle of a transmembrane helix. However, when placed near the ends of transmembrane helices, they show little preference for the surface versus the interior of the protein. These data show that Asn side chains within the apolar region of the transmembrane helix provide a significantly larger driving force for association than Asn residues near the apolar/polar interface. Thus, although polar interactions are able to strongly stabilize the folding of membrane proteins, the energetics of association depend on their location within the hydrophobic region of a transmembrane helix.