The conformational propensities of unfolded states of apomyoglobin have been investigated by measurement of residual dipolar couplings between (15)N and (1)H in backbone amide groups. Weak alignment of apomyoglobin in acid and urea-unfolded states was induced with both stretched and compressed polyacrylamide gels. In 8 M urea solution at pH 2.3, conditions under which apomyoglobin contains no detectable secondary or tertiary structure, significant residual dipolar couplings of uniform sign were observed for all residues. At pH 2.3 in the absence of urea, a change in the magnitude and/or sign of the residual dipolar couplings occurs in local regions of the polypeptide where there is a high propensity for helical secondary structure. These results are interpreted on the basis of the statistical properties of the unfolded polypeptide chain, viewed as a polymer of statistical segments. For a folded protein, the magnitude and sign of the residual dipolar couplings depend on the orientation of each bond vector relative to the alignment tensor of the entire molecule, which reorients as a single entity. For unfolded proteins, there is no global alignment tensor; instead, residual dipolar couplings are attributed to alignment of the statistical segments or of transient elements of secondary structure. For apomyoglobin in 8 M urea, the backbone is highly extended, with phi and psi dihedral angles favoring the beta or P(II) regions. Each statistical segment has a highly anisotropic shape, with the N-H bond vectors approximately perpendicular to the long axis, and becomes weakly aligned in the anisotropic environment of the strained acrylamide gels. Local regions of enhanced flexibility or chain compaction are characterized by a decrease in the magnitude of the residual dipolar couplings. The formation of a small population of helical structure in the acid-denatured state of apomyoglobin leads to a change in sign of the residual dipolar couplings in local regions of the polypeptide; the population of helix estimated from the residual dipolar couplings is in excellent agreement with that determined from chemical shifts. The alignment model described here for apomyoglobin can also explain the pattern of residual dipolar couplings reported previously for denatured states of staphylococcal nuclease and other proteins. In conjunction with other NMR experiments, residual dipolar couplings can provide valuable insights into the dynamic conformational propensities of unfolded and partly folded states of proteins and thereby help to chart the upper reaches of the folding landscape.