A method is proposed and demonstrated for the direct determination of conformational disorder (trans-gauche isomerization) as a function of acyl-chain position in phospholipid bilayer membranes. Three specifically deuterated derivatives of dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine (DPPC), namely 4,4,4',4'-d4-DPPC (4-d4-DPPC), 6,6,6',6'-d4-DPPC (6-d4-DPPC), and 10,10,10', 10'-d4-DPPC (10-d4-DPPC), have been synthesized. The CD2 rocking modes in the Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) spectrum have been monitored as a function of temperature for each derivative. A method originally applied by Snyder and Poore [(1973) Macromolecules 6, 708-715] as a specific probe of hydrocarbon chain conformation in alkanes has been used to analyze the data. The rocking modes appear at 622 cm-1 for a CD2 segment surrounded by a trans C-C-C skeleton and between 645 and 655 cm-1 for segments surrounded by particular gauche conformers. The integrated band intensities of these modes have been used to monitor trans-gauche isomerization in the acyl chains at particular depths in the bilayer. At 48 °C, above the gel-liquid-crystal phase transition, the percentage of gauche rotamers present is 20.7 ± 4.2, 32.3 ± 2.3, and 19.7 ± 0.8 for 4-d4-DPPC, 6-d4-DPPC, and 10-d4-DPPC, respectively. The gel phase of the latter two molecules is highly ordered. In contrast, a substantial population of gauche rotamers was observed for the 4-d4-DPPC. The conformational analysis yields a range of 3.6-4.2 gauche rotamers/acyl chain of DPPC above the phase transition. This range is in excellent accord with the dilatometric data of Nagle and Wilkinson [(1978) Biophys. J. 23, 159-175]. The significant advantages of the FT-IR approach are discussed. © 1989, American Chemical Society. All rights reserved.