Backbone amide hydrogen bonds play a central role in protein secondary and tertiary structure. Previous studies have shown that substitution of a backbone ester (-COO-) in place of a backbone amide (-CONH-) can selectively destabilize backbone hydrogen bonds in a protein while maintaining a similar conformation to the native backbone structure. The majority of these studies have focused on backbone substitutions that were accessible to solvent. The GCN4 coiled coil domain is an example of a stable alpha-helical dimer that possesses a well-packed hydrophobic core. Amino acids in the a and d positions of the GCN4 helix, which pack the hydrophobic core, were replaced with the corresponding alpha-hydroxy acids in the context of a chemoselectively ligated heterodimer. While the overall structure and oligomerization state of the heterodimer were maintained, the overall destabilization of the ester analogues was greater (average DeltaDeltaG of 3+ kcal mol(-1)) and more variable than previous studies. Since burial of the more hydrophobic ester should stabilize the backbone and reduce the DeltaDeltaG, the increased destabilization must come from another source. However, the observed destabilization is correlated with the protection factors for individual amide hydrogens from previous hydrogen exchange experiments. Therefore, our results suggest that backbone engineering through ester substitution is a useful approach for probing the relative strength of backbone hydrogen bonds.