The assay for the cross-linked carboxyterminal telopeptide of type I collagen (ICTP) has been shown to reflect increased type I collagen degradation in such pathological conditions as bone metastases and rheumatoid arthritis, but to be rather insensitive to the changes in physiological bone collagen turnover (e.g., induced by estrogen or bisphosphonate treatment). To determine the reasons for this discrepancy we localized the antigenic determinant recognized by the ICTP assay and studied the effects of two major osteoclastic proteinases, cathepsin K (EC 18.104.22.168) and matrix metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9; gelatinase B; EC 22.214.171.124), on immunoreactivity. The antigenic determinant was shown to reside within the hydrophobic phenylalanine-rich regions of the carboxyterminal telopeptides of the two alpha1 chains of human type I collagen, situated between the triple helical domain and the lysine-derived trivalent cross-link. This conclusion was based on differences between the amino acid sequences and cross reactivities of the corresponding human and bovine antigens before and after proteolytic treatments with chymotrypsin. A trivalent cross-link is necessary for providing such a structure, because the divalently cross-linked and monomeric natural and synthetic peptides from the same region, but containing only one phenylalanine-rich sequence, showed poor immunoreaction. Recombinant human cathepsin K cleaved the trivalently cross-linked ICTP structure at two sites between the phenylalanine-rich region and the cross-link, destroying the reactivity with ICTP antibodies. On the contrary, the treatment of isolated ICTP by the matrix metalloproteinases MMP-9 (gelatinase B), MMP-1 (collagenase 1), or MMP-13 (collagenase 3) had no effect on the immunoreaction. Our results indicate that the increased circulating concentrations of ICTP found in several clinical situations are most likely produced by matrix metalloproteinases, whereas cathepsin K-mediated, osteoclastic bone resorption destroys ICTP antigenicity.