The human lens proteins beta-crystallins are subdivided into acidic (betaA1-betaA4) and basic (betaB1-betaB3) subunit groups. These structural proteins exist at extremely high concentrations and associate into oligomers under physiological conditions. Crystallin acidic-basic pairs tend to form strong heteromolecular associations. The long N-terminal extensions of beta-crystallins may influence both homo- and heteromolecular interactions. However, identification of the critical regions of the extensions mediating protein associations has not been previously addressed. This was studied by comparing the self-association and heteromolecular associations of wild-type recombinant betaA3- and betaB1-crystallins and their N-terminally truncated counterparts (betaA3DeltaN30 and betaB1DeltaN56) using several biophysical techniques, including analytical ultracentrifugation and fluorescence spectroscopy. Removal of the N-terminal extension of betaA3 had no effect on dimerization or heteromolecular tetramer formation with betaB1. In contrast, the level of self-association of betaB1DeltaN56 increased, resulting in homotetramer formation, and heteromolecular association with betaA3 was blocked. Limited proteolysis of betaB1 produced betaB1DeltaN47, which is similar to intact protein formed dimers but in contrast showed enhanced heteromolecular tetramer formation with betaA3. The tryptic digestion was physiologically significant, corresponding to protease processing sites observed in vivo. Molecular modeling of the N-terminal betaB1 extension indicates structural features that position a mobile loop in the vicinity of these processing sites. The loop is derived from residues 48-56 which appear to be critical for mediating protein interactions with betaA3-crystallin.