The heat capacity plays a major role in the determination of the energetics of protein folding and molecular recognition. As such, a better understanding of this thermodynamic parameter and its structural origin will provide new insights for the development of better molecular design strategies. In this paper we have analyzed the absolute heat capacity of proteins in different conformations. The results of these studies indicate that three major terms account for the absolute heat capacity of a protein: (1) one term that depends only on the primary or covalent structure of a protein and contains contributions from vibrational frequencies arising from the stretching and bending modes of each valence bond and internal rotations; (2) a term that contains the contributions of noncovalent interactions arising from secondary and tertiary structure; and (3) a term that contains the contributions of hydration. For a typical globular protein in solution the bulk of the heat capacity at 25°C is given by the covalent structure term (close to 85% of the total). The hydration term contributes about 15 and 40% to the total heat capacity of the native and unfolded states, respectively. The contribution of non-covalent structure to the total heat capacity of the native state is positive but very small and does not amount to more than 3% at 25°C. The change in heat capacity upon unfolding is primarily given by the increase in the hydration term (about 95%) and to a much lesser extent by the loss of noncovalent interactions (up to ∼5%). It is demonstrated that a single universal mathematical function can be used to represent the partial molar heat capacity of the native and unfolded states of proteins in solution. This function can be experimentally written in terms of the molecular weight, the polar and apolar solvent accessible surface areas, and the total area buried from the solvent. This unique function accurately predicts the different magnitude and temperature dependences of the heat capacity of both the native and unfolded states, and therefore of the heat capacity changes associated with folding/unfolding transitions. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.