The effects of mustard trypsin inhibitor MTI-2 expressed at different levels in transgenic tobacco, arabidopsis and oilseed rape lines have been evaluated against three different lepidopteran insect pests. 1. Plutella xylostella (L.) larvae were the most sensitive to the ingestion of MTI-2. The inhibitor expressed at high levels in arabidopsis plants caused rapid and complete mortality. High mortality and significantly delayed larval development were also detectable in oilseed rape expressing MTI-2 at lower levels. 2. Mamestra brassicae (L.) larvae were sensitive only at high MTI-2 expression level, as obtained in transgenic tobacco and arabidopsis, whereas no effects were observed for larvae fed on plants showing relatively low expression levels such as those of oilseed rape lines. 3. Feeding bioassays with Spodoptera littoralis (Boisduval) larvae were carried out using the same oilseed rape lines, showing that at these low expression levels no mortality was observed although a delay in larval development did occur. The levels of insect gut proteolytic activities of the larvae still alive at the end of a 7 day feeding bioassay were usually higher than in the controls, but no new proteinases were expressed in any case. The combined results described in this paper demonstrate altogether the relevance of a case-by-case analysis [target insects and proteinase inhibitor (PI) level of expression in planta] in a PI-based strategy for plant protection.