Background: The molecular mechanics of inclusion body formation is still far from being completely understood, specially regarding the occurrence of properly folded, protein species that exhibit natural biological activities. We have here comparatively explored thermally promoted, in vivo protein aggregation and the formation of bacterial inclusion bodies, from both structural and functional sides. Also, the status of the soluble and insoluble protein versions in both aggregation systems have been examined as well as the role of the main molecular chaperones GroEL and DnaK in the conformational quality of the target polypeptide. Results: While thermal denaturation results in the formation of heterogeneous aggregates that are rather stable in composition, protein deposition as inclusion bodies renders homogenous but strongly evolving structures, which are progressively enriched in the main protein species while gaining native-like structure. Although both type of aggregates display common features, inclusion body formation but not thermal-induced aggregation involves deposition of functional polypeptides that confer biological activity to such particles, at expenses of the average conformational quality of the protein population remaining in the soluble cell fraction. In absence of DnaK, however, the activity and conformational nativeness of inclusion body proteins are dramatically impaired while the soluble protein version gains specific activity. Conclusion: The chaperone DnaK controls the fractioning of active protein between soluble and insoluble cell fractions in inclusion body-forming cells but not during thermally-driven protein aggregation. This cell protein, probably through diverse activities, is responsible for the occurrence and enrichment in inclusion bodies of native-like, functional polypeptides, that are much less represented in other kind of protein aggregates. © 2006 González-Montalbán et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.