One mechanism for the spontaneous degradation of polypeptides is the intramolecular attack of the peptide bond nitrogen on the side chain carbonyl carbon atom of aspartic acid and asparagine residues. This reaction results in the formation of succinimide derivatives and has been shown to be largely responsible for the racemization, isomerization, and deamidation of these residues in several peptides under physiological conditions (Geiger, T. & Clarke, S. J. Biol. Chem. 262, 785–794 (1987)). To determine if similar reactions might occur in proteins, I examined the sequence and conformation about aspartic acid and asparagine residues in a sample of stable, well-characterized proteins. There did not appear to be any large bias against dipeptide sequences that readily form succinimides in small peptides. However, it was found that aspartyl and asparaginyl residues generally exist in native proteins in conformations where the peptide bond nitrogen atom cannot approach the side chain carbonyl carbon to form a succinimide ring. These orientations also represent energy minimum states, and it appears that this factor may account for a low rate of spontaneous damage to proteins by succinimide-linked reactions. The presence of aspartic acid and asparagine residues in other conformations, such as those in partially denatured, conformationally flexible regions, may lead to more rapid succinimide formation and contribute to the degradation of the molecule. The possible role of isoimide intermediates, formed by the attack of the peptide oxygen atom on the side chain carboxyl group, in protein racemization, isomerization, and deamidation is also considered.