Effects of volatile anesthetics (chloroform, halothane, and enflurane) on the secondary structure of poly(L-lysine) were analyzed by circular dichroism (CD). The relative proportions among alpha-helix, beta-sheet, and random-coil conformations were calculated by the curve-fitting method on the CD data. Volatile anesthetics partially transformed alpha-helix to beta-sheet but not to random-coil under the present experimental condition. When expressed by the anesthetic partial pressures in the gas phase in equilibrium with the solution, the values that partially transformed alpha to beta conformation by 10% were 1.1 x 10(-2), 4.7 x 10(-2), and 7.9 x 10(-2) atm for chloroform, halothane, and enflurane, respectively. The order of potency is in reasonable agreement with the order of the anesthetic potencies of the agents. The alpha-to-beta transition was completely reversible when anesthetics were purged by nitrogen gas. Volatile anesthetics disrupted the hydrogen bonds of alpha-helix backbones and rearranged them to form the beta-sheet conformation. The beta-sheet conformation is stabilized mainly by the hydrophobic interaction among methylene side groups of poly(L-lysine). Volatile anesthetics promoted the transition by enhancing the hydrophobic interaction among side-chains and by rearranging the hydrogen bonds in the peptide backbone.