When bacterial or eukaryotic cells are exposed to high temperatures or other harsh conditions, they respond by synthesis of a specific set of heat-shock proteins. Certain heat-shock proteins such as groEL, called 'chaperonins', can prevent misfolding and promote the refolding and proper assembly of unfolded polypeptides generated under harmful conditions. We report here a new aspect of the heat-shock response in Escherichia coli: at high temperatures a fraction of groEL becomes modified covalently, altering its interaction with unfolded proteins. The heat-modified form can be eluted with ATP from an unfolded protein more easily than normal groEL. The critical heat-induced modification seems to be phosphorylation, which is reversed on return to low temperature. Treatment of the modified groEL with phosphatases caused its apparent size, charge and binding properties to resemble those of the unmodified form. Thus during heat shock some groEL is reversibly phosphorylated, which allows its ATP-dependent release from protein substrates in the absence of its usual cofactor (groES), and probably promotes the repair of damaged polypeptides.