The impact of protein-protein interactions on the conformation of the N-terminal hirudin domain consisting of residues 1 to 51 in the X-ray crystal structure of a hirudin-thrombin complex was investigated through comparisons with the nuclear magnetic resonance solution structure of hirudin(1-51). The close overall similarity observed between these two structures contrasts with the behavior of the C-terminal 17-residue polypeptide segment of hirudin, which is flexibly disordered in solution but exhibits a defined conformation in the complex with thrombin. Localized structural differences in the N-terminal domain include that residues 1 to 3 of hirudin in the crystalline complex form a hydrogen-bonding network with thrombin that is reminiscent of a parallel beta-sheet. Moreover, the backbone conformation of residues 17 to 20 in the complex does not contain the characteristic hydrogen bond observed for the type II' reverse turn in the solution structure, and the side-chains of Ser19 and Val21 have significantly different orientations in the two structures. Most of these structural changes can be related directly to thrombin-hirudin contacts, which may also be an important factor in the mechanism of hirudin action. In this context, it is of special interest that other residues that also make numerous contacts with thrombin, e.g. Thr4, Asp5 and Asn20, have identical conformations in free hirudin and in the complex.