The mpi gene encodes a maize proteinase inhibitor (MPI) protein whose mRNA accumulates in response to mechanical wounding. In this study, mpi gene expression in response to different types of damage was investigated. In mechanically damaged leaves of maize (Zea mays L.), mpi mRNA accumulation was affected by the degree of damage inflicted on the leaf. Consecutive wounds resulted in higher levels of mpi transcripts. The MPI protein was expressed in Escherichia coli and purified. Polyclonal antibodies were then produced and used to study MPI accumulation in insect-wounded and mechanically wounded maize leaves. When larvae of the lepidopteran insect Spodoptera littoralis were fed on maize leaves, MPI accumulated in tissues adjacent to the wound site. The level of inhibitor accumulation was higher in leaves chewed by larvae than in leaves that had been damaged mechanically. Longer feeding periods also resulted in higher levels of MPI accumulation. Additionally, the inhibitory properties of MPI toward mammalian and insect digestive serine proteinases were determined. Contrary to the majority of the plant proteinase inhibitors described, MPI is an inhibitor of mammalian elastase that only weakly inhibits mammalian chymotrypsin. However, both elastase and chymotrypsin-like activities from the larval midgut of S. littoralis were effectively inhibited by MPI. We discuss these results with regard to the function and evolution of plant proteinase inhibitors. The availability of a plant proteinase inhibitor which is able to inhibit the two types of insect digestive proteinase, elastase and chymotrypsin, might be useful for engineering protection against lepidopteran insect pests in transgenic plants.