The rate of formation of intramolecular interactions in unfolded proteins determines how fast conformational space can be explored during folding. Characterization of the dynamics of unfolded proteins is therefore essential for the understanding of the earliest steps in protein folding. We used triplet-triplet energy transfer to measure formation of intrachain contacts in different unfolded polypeptide chains. The time constants (1/k) for contact formation over short distances are almost independent of chain length, with a maximum value of about 5ns for flexible glycine-rich chains and of 12ns for stiffer chains. The rates of contact formation over longer distances decrease with increasing chain length, indicating different rate-limiting steps for motions over short and long chain segments. The effect of the amino acid sequence on local chain dynamics was probed by using a series of host-guest peptides. Formation of local contacts is only sixfold slower around the stiffest amino acid (proline) compared to the most flexible amino acid (glycine). Good solvents for polypeptide chains like EtOH, GdmCl and urea were found to slow intrachain diffusion and to decrease chain stiffness. These data allow us to determine the time constants for formation of the earliest intrachain contacts during protein folding. © 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.