Alpha(1)-proteinase inhibitor (alpha(1)-PI) is a member of the serpin superfamily of serine proteinase inhibitors that are involved in the regulation of a number of proteolytic processes. Alpha(1)-PI, like most serpins, functions by covalent binding to, and inhibition of, target proteinases. The interaction between alpha(1)-PI and its target is directed by the so-called reactive center loop (RCL), an approximately 20 residue domain that extends out from the body of the alpha(1)-PI polypeptide and determines the inhibitor's specificity. Mice express at least seven closely related alpha(1)-PI isoforms, encoded by a family of genes clustered at the Spi1 locus on chromosome 12. The amino acid sequence of the RCL region is hypervariable among alpha(1)-PIs, a phenomenon that has been attributed to high rates of evolution driven by positive Darwinian selection. This suggests that the various isoforms are functionally diverse. To test this notion, we have compared the proteinase specificities of individual alpha(1)-PIs from each of the two mouse species. As predicted from the positive Darwinian selection hypothesis, the various alpha(1)-PIs differ in their ability to form covalent complexes with serine proteinases, such as elastase, trypsin, chymotrypsin, and cathepsin G. In addition, they differ in their binding ability to proteinases in crude snake venoms. Importantly, the RCL region of the alpha(1)-PI polypeptide is the primary determinant of isoform-specific differences in proteinase recognition, indicating that hypervariability within this region drives the functional diversification of alpha(1)-PIs during evolution. The possible physiological benefits of alpha(1)-PI diversity are discussed.