Tuberculosis continues to be a major disease threatening millions of lives worldwide. Several antigens of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, identified by monoclonal antibodies, have been cloned and are being exploited in the development of improved vaccines and diagnostic reagents. We have expressed and purified the 16-kDa antigen, an immunodominant antigen with serodiagnostic value, which has been previously cloned and shown to share low sequence homology with the alpha-crystallin-related small heat shock protein family. Sedimentation equilibrium analytical ultracentrifugation and dynamic light scattering demonstrate the formation of a specific oligomer, 149 +/- 8 kDa, consisting of approximately nine monomers. In 4 M urea, a smaller oligomer of 47 +/- 6 kDa (or trimer) is produced. Analysis by electron cryomicroscopy reveals a triangular shaped oligomeric structure arising from the presence of three subparticles or globules. Taken together, the data suggest an antigen complex structure of a trimer of trimers. This antigen, independent of ATP addition, effectively suppresses the thermal aggregation of citrate synthase at 40 degrees C, indicating that it can function as a molecular chaperone in vitro. A complex between the antigen and heat-denatured citrate synthase can be detected and isolated using high performance liquid chromatography. We propose to rename the 16-kDa antigen Hsp16.3 to be consistent with other members of the small heat shock protein family.