The two main mammalian calpains, 1 and 2, are heterodimers of a large 80 kDa and a small 28 kDa subunit that together bind multiple calcium ions during enzyme activation. The main contact between the two subunits of these intracellular cysteine proteases is through a pairing of the fifth EF-hand of their C-terminal penta-EF-hand (PEF) domains. From modeling studies and observation of crystal structures, it is not obvious why these calpains form heterodimers with the small subunit rather than homodimers of the large subunit, as suggested for calpain 3 (p94). Therefore, we have used a differential tagging system to determine which of the other PEF domain-containing calpains form heterodimers and which form homodimers. His6-tagged PEF domains of calpains 1, 3, 9 and 13 were coexpressed with the PEF domain of the small subunit that had been tagged with an antifreeze protein. As predicted, the PEF domain of calpain 1 heterodimerized and that of calpain 3 formed a homodimer. The PEF domain of digestive tract-specific calpain 9 heterodimerized with the small subunit, and that of calpain 13, prevalent in lung and testis, was mainly found as a homodimer with a small amount of heterodimer. These results indicate whether recombinant production of a particular calpain requires coexpression of the small subunit, and whether this calpain is likely to be active in a small subunit knockout mouse. Furthermore, as the endogenous inhibitor calpastatin binds to PEF domains on the large and small subunit, it is less likely that the homodimeric calpains 3 and 13 with two active sites will bind or be silenced by calpastatin.