The effect of magnesium ions on the catalytic activities of the bovine pituitary multicatalytic proteinase complex (MPC) was studied. Mg2+ markedly stimulated the breakdown of dephosphorylated beta-casein (caseinolytic activity) and the hydrolysis of Cbz-Leu-Leu-Glu-2-naphthylamide (peptidylglutamyl peptide bond hydrolyzing activity) by a 1700-fold purified preparation of MPC. Cleavage of Cbz-D-Ala-Leu-Arg-2-naphthylamide (trypsin-like activity) was strongly inhibited and cleavage of Cbz-Gly-Gly-Leu-p-nitroanilide (chymotrypsin-like activity) was weakly inhibited. Similar results were produced when enzymatic activities in the absence of Mg2+ were measured at 52 degrees C rather than at 37 degrees C. Trace protein impurities were removed by phenyl-Sepharose chromatography. This additional chromatographic step, while not changing the specific activities of hydrolysis of the three synthetic chromogenic substrates, led to a marked activation of the breakdown of dephosphorylated beta-casein. Mg2+ was not able to further stimulate the caseinolytic activities of either the phenyl-Sepharose-treated preparation or the preparation measured at 52 degrees C. Mg2+ therefore converts a "repressed" form of MPC to an "activated" form, possibly by promoting dissociation of a protein inhibitor, and may serve as a physiological regulator of this enzyme complex.