The solution conformation of digalacturonic acid and its sodium salt have been analyzed using nuclear magnetic resonance data and molecular mechanics calculations. The flexibility around the glycosidic linkage was characterized by calculation of the relaxed (phi, psi) potential surfaces for the isolated molecule, and also for dimethyl sulfoxide and aqueous solutions using the CHARMM and SOLVOL programs. The one-bond and three-bond proton-carbon couplings were measured and H-1'-H-4 distances were estimated from NOESY experiments. The calculated potential surfaces were used to determine theoretical ensemble averages of NMR data. The agreement between the experimental and theoretical data is very satisfactory. The calculations show a strong effect of solvent on the solution behavior of both compounds. The vacuum lowest energy conformer of digalacturonic acid is stabilized by solvation, while for sodium digalacturonate the solvent induces a conformational change. An extrapolation of the stable conformers to polysaccharide chains implies that poly(galacturonic acid) occurs in solution as a three-fold helix and sodium poly(galacturonate) as a two-fold helix.