Four 12.2-12.6 kDa small heat-shock proteins (sHSPs) of Caenorhabditis elegans are the smallest known members of the sHSP family. They essentially comprise the characteristic C-terminal 'alpha-crystallin domain' of the sHSPs, having a very short N-terminal region, and lacking a C-terminal tail. Recombinant Hsp12.2 and 12.3 are characterized here. Far-UV CD spectra reveal, as for other sHSPs, predominantly a beta-sheet structure. By gel permeation and crosslinking, they are the first sHSPs shown to occur as tetramers, rather than forming the usual large multimeric complexes. Exceptionally, too, both appear devoid of in vitro chaperone-like abilities. This supports the notion that tetramers are the building blocks of sHSP complexes, and that higher multimer formation, mediated through the N-terminal domains, is a prerequisite for chaperone-like activity.