Using recombinant DNA methods, seven cystatin variants were produced by cassette mutagenesis of a chicken egg white cystatin variant which already contains the mutations Ala3, Glu2, Phe1, Ser1-->Met, Met29-->and Met 89-->Leu. When characterized by structural and functional studies, they were all found to harbour mutations in the first hairpin loop, the so-called 'QXVXG' region, which is highly conserved within the cystatin superfamily and thought to be important for its inhibitory activity towards cysteine proteinases. They were purified to more than 90% homogeneity and analysed by SDS/PAGE, HPLC, tryptic peptide mapping, N-terminal amino acid sequencing and ELISA. Structural model building of the variants and their complexes with papain was performed using computer graphics based on the crystallographic coordinates of chicken egg white cystatin and the papain-stefin complex. Only minor conformational changes were required for modelling the mutants or complexes. Equilibrium dissociation constants and rate constants of complex formation of the variants with papain, actinidin as well as cathepsin B and L were determined by kinetic measurements using fluorogenic substrates. The single exchanges Gln53-->Glu, Gln53-->Asn, Val44-->Asp, Gly57-->Ala and the double exchanges Arg52-->Leu, Gln53-->Glu, Gln53-->Asn, Ser56-->Ala, Leu54-->Met, Gly57-->Ala reduced the inhibition of papain, actinidin and cathespin B significantly by 10-1000-fold. With the exception of the Val55-->Asp variant, the differences in the Ki values are mainly due to larger k off values, whereas the kon values seem to be more or less unaffected by the selected mutations. The effect on the inhibition of papain is generally smaller than the effects on actinidin and cathepsin B inhibition. Cathepsin L inhibition is strikingly insensitive to all mutations. These distinct effects of the inhibitor variants indicate differences in proteinase-inhibitor-protein interactions between closely related cysteine proteinases. In addition, the results verify the prediction, made earlier from sequence alignment studies and from a docking model of the chicken cystatin-papain complex, that the first hairpin loop of cystatins is essential for effective inhibition.