A noncovalently bound dimeric form of recombinant human IL-6 interleukin-6 (IL-6D) was shown to be an antagonist for IL-6 activity, in a STAT3 tyrosine phosphorylation assay using HepG2 cells, under conditions where it does not dissociate into monomeric IL-6 (IL-6M). The fluorescence from Trp157, the single tryptophan residue in the primary sequence of IL-6, is altered in IL-6D, where the wavelength maximum is blue-shifted by 3 nm and the emission intensity is reduced by 30%. These data suggest that Trp157 is close to, but not buried by, the dimer interface. Both IL-6D and IL-6M are compact molecules, as determined by sedimentation velocity analysis, and contain essentially identical levels of secondary and tertiary structure, as determined by far- and near-UV CD, respectively. IL-6D and IL-6M show the same susceptibility to limited proteolytic attack, and exhibit identical far-UV CD-monitored urea-denaturation profiles with the midpoint of denaturation occurring at 6.0 +/- 0.1 M urea. However, IL-6D was found to dissociate prior to the complete unfolding of the protein, with a midpoint of dissociation of 3 M urea, suggesting that dissociation and dimerization occur when the protein is in a partially unfolded state. Based on these results, we suggest that IL-6D is a metastable domain-swapped dimer, comprising two monomeric units where identical helices from each protein chain are swapped through the loop regions at the "top" of the protein (i.e., the region of the protein most distal from the N- and C-termini). Such an arrangement would account for the antagonistic activity of IL-6D. In this model, receptor binding site I, which comprises residues in the A/B loop and the C-terminus of the protein, is free to bind the IL-6 receptor. However, site III, which includes Trp157 and residues in the C/D loop and N-terminal end of helix D, and perhaps site II, which comprises residues in the A and C helices, are no longer able to bind the signal transducing component of the IL-6 receptor complex, gp130.