The thermal denaturation of bacteriorhodopsin in the purple membrane of Halobacterium halobium has been studied by differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) and temperature-dependent spectroscopy in the pH range from 5 to 11. Monitoring of protein fluorescence and absorbance in the near-UV and visible regions indicates that changes primarily occur in tertiary structure with denaturation. Far-UV circular dichroism shows only small changes in the secondary structure, unlike most globular water-soluble proteins of comparable molecular weight. The DSC transition can best be described as a two-state denaturation of the trimer. Thermodynamic analysis of the calorimetric transition reveals some similarity between the unfolding of bacteriorhodopsin and water-soluble proteins. Specifically, a pH dependence of the midpoint temperature of denaturation is seen as well as a temperature-dependent enthalpy of denaturation. Proteolysis experiments on denatured purple membrane suggest that bacteriorhodopsin may be partially extruded from the membrane as it denatures. Exposure of buried hydrophobic residues to the aqueous environment upon denaturation is consistent with the observed temperature-dependent enthalpy. © 1987, American Chemical Society. All rights reserved.