Cystatin B is unique among cysteine proteinase inhibitors of the cystatin superfamily in having a free Cys in the N-terminal segment of the proteinase binding region. The importance of this residue for inhibition of target proteinases was assessed by studies of the affinity and kinetics of interaction of human and bovine wild-type cystatin B and the Cys 3-to-Ser mutants of the inhibitors with papain and cathepsins L, H, and B. The wild-type forms from the two species had about the same affinity for each proteinase, binding tightly to papain and cathepsin L and more weakly to cathepsins H and B. In general, these affinities were appreciably higher than those reported earlier, perhaps because of irreversible oxidation of Cys 3 in previous work. The Cys-to-Ser mutation resulted in weaker binding of cystatin B to all four proteinases examined, the effect varying with both the proteinase and the species variant of the inhibitor. The affinities of the human inhibitor for papain and cathepsin H were decreased by threefold to fourfold and that for cathepsin B by approximately 20-fold, whereas the reductions in the affinities of the bovine inhibitor for papain and cathepsins H and B were approximately 14-fold, approximately 10-fold and approximately 300-fold, respectively. The decreases in affinity for cathepsin L could not be properly quantified but were greater than threefold. Increased dissociation rate constants were responsible for the weaker binding of both mutants to papain. By contrast, the reduced affinities for cathepsins H and B were due to decreased association rate constants. Cys 3 of both human and bovine cystatin B is thus of appreciable importance for inhibition of cysteine proteinases, in particular cathepsin B.