Heretofore the complexity of natural abundance spectra has precluded the use of 13C NMR to detect cis peptide bonds in proteins. We have incorporated [4-13C]proline into chicken calvaria collagen and report here well-resolved C gamma signals, arising from cis and trans X-Pro and X-Hyp peptide bonds (where X is any amino acid residue) in the 13C NMR spectrum of the thermally unfolded protein. Measurement of 13C signal areas shows that 16% of the X-Pro and 8% of X-Hyp bonds are cis in the unfolded collagen. These results strongly support the conclusion drawn from kinetic studies that cis-trans isomerization of peptide bonds is the rate-limiting step in helix propagation after nucleation. Our method can be applied to other proteins as well and should aid in testing the generality of the hypothesis of Brandts, Halvorson, and Brennan that cis-trans isomerization is the rate-limiting step in protein folding when proline is present.