Calcium-induced autolysis of bovine erythrocyte calpain I occurs in multiple stages. Initially, a 14 amino acid segment is cleaved from the N-terminus of the native 80 kDa catalytic subunit, yielding a 78 kDa form of the subunit. Then, an additional 12 amino acid segment is cleaved from the N-terminus, forming a 76 kDa subunit. The 76 kDa enzyme is the active form of the catalytic subunit that is able to proteolyze the 30 kDa regulatory subunit as well as exogenous substrates. While the initial autolytic step requires high calcium, the 76 kDa enzyme form is active in microM calcium and can cleave the amino termini of native 80 kDa and intermediate 78 kDa enzyme forms at low calcium. Both intramolecular and intermolecular proteolysis of the catalytic subunit appear to yield the same products.