2-O-alpha-Mannosylglycerate, a negatively charged osmolyte widely distributed among (hyper) thermophilic microorganisms, is known to provide notable protection to proteins against thermal denaturation. To study the mechanism responsible for protein stabilization, picosecond time-resolved fluorescence spectroscopy was used to characterize the thermal unfolding of a model protein, Staphylococcus aureus recombinant nuclease A ( SNase), in the presence or absence of mannosylglycerate. The fluorescence decay times are signatures of the protein state, and the pre-exponential coefficients are used to evaluate the molar fractions of the folded and unfolded states. Hence, direct determination of equilibrium constants of unfolding from molar fractions was carried out. Van't Hoff plots of the equilibrium constants provided reliable thermodynamic data for SNase unfolding. Differential scanning calorimetry was used to validate this thermodynamic analysis. The presence of 0.5 M potassium mannosylglycerate caused an increase of 7 degreesC in the SNase melting temperature and a 2-fold increase in the unfolding heat capacity. Despite the considerable degree of stabilization rendered by this solute, the nature and population of protein states along unfolding were not altered in the presence of mannosylglycerate, denoting that the unfolding pathway of SNase was unaffected. The stabilization of SNase by mannosylglycerate arises from decreased unfolding entropy up to 65 degreesC and from an enthalpy increase above this temperature. In molecular terms, stabilization is interpreted as resulting from destabilization of the denatured state caused by preferential exclusion of the solute from the protein hydration shell upon unfolding, and stabilization of the native state by specific interactions. The physiological significance of charged solutes in hyperthermophiles is discussed.