Heat shock protein 47 (HSP47), a collagen-specific stress protein, has been postulated to be a collagen-specific molecular chaperone localized in the ER. We previously demonstrated that HSP47 transiently associated with newly synthesized procollagen in the ER (Nakai, A., M. Satoh, K. Hirayoshi, and K. Nagata. 1992. J. Cell Biol. 117:903-914). In the present work, we examined the location where HSP47 binds to and dissociates from newly synthesized procollagen within the cells, and whether HSP47 associates with nascent single procollagen polypeptide chains and/or with mature triple-helix procollagen. This was accomplished by biochemical coprecipitation with anti-HSP47 and anticollagen antibodies, combined with pulse-label and chase experiments in the presence or absence of various inhibitors for protein secretion, as well as by confocal laser microscopic observation of the cells double stained with both antibodies. We further examined whether the RDEL (Arg-Asp-Glu-Leu) sequence at the COOH terminus of HSP47 can act as an ER-retention signal, as the KDEL sequence does. When the secretion of procollagen was inhibited by the presence of alpha, alpha'-dipyridyl, an iron chelator that inhibits procollagen triple-helix formation, or by the presence of brefeldin A. which inhibits protein transport between the ER and the Golgi apparatus, procollagen was found to be bound to HSP47 during the chase period in the intermediate compartment. In contrast, the dissociation of procollagen chains from HSP47 was not inhibited when procollagen secretion was inhibited by monensin or bafilomycin A1, both of which are known to be inhibitors of post-cis-Golgi transport. These findings suggest that HSP47 and procollagen dissociated between the post-ER and the cis-Golgi compartments. HSP47 was shown to bind to nascent, single-polypeptide chains of newly synthesized procollagen, as well as to the mature triple-helix form of procollagen. HSP47 with the RDEL sequence deleted was secreted out of the cells, which suggests that the RDEL sequence actually acts as an ER-retention signal, as the KDEL sequence does. This secreted HSP47 did not acquire endoglycosidase H resistance. The biological significance of the interaction between HSP47 and procollagen in the central secretory pathway, as well as possible mechanisms for this pathway, will be discussed.