Molecular chaperone activity of lens alpha-crystallins is reduced by loss of the C terminus. The purpose of this experiment was to 1) determine the cleavage sites produced in vitro by ubiquitous m-calpain and lens-specific Lp82 on alpha-crystallins, 2) identify alpha-crystallin cleavage sites produced in vivo during maturation and cataract formation in rat lens, and 3) estimate the relative activities of Lp82 and m-calpain by appearance of protease-specific cleavage products in vivo. Total soluble protein from young rat lens was incubated with recombinant m-calpain or Lp82 and 2 mM Ca2+. Resulting fragmented alpha-crystallins were separated by two-dimensional gel electrophoresis. Eluted alpha-crystallin spots were analyzed by mass spectrometry. Cleavage sites on insoluble alpha-crystallins were determined similarly in mature rat lens nucleus and in cataractous rat lens nucleus induced by selenite. In vitro proteolysis of alphaA-crystallin by Lp82 and m-calpain produced unique cleavage sites by removing 5 and 11 residues, respectively, from the C terminus. In vivo, the protease-specific truncations removing 5 and 11 residues from alphaA were both found in maturing lens, whereas only the truncation removing 5 residues was found in cataractous lens. Other truncation sites, common to both calpain isoforms, resulted from the removal of 8, 10, 16, 17, and 22 residues from the C terminus of alphaA. Using uniquely truncated alphaA-crystallins as in vivo markers, Lp82 and m-calpain were both found to be active during normal maturation of rat lens, whereas Lp82 seemed especially active during selenite cataract formation. These C-terminal truncations decrease chaperone activity of alpha-crystallins, possibly leading to the observed increases in insoluble proteins during aging and cataract. The methodology that allowed accurate mass measurements of proteins eluted from 2D gels should be useful to examine rapidly other post-translational modifications.