The major excreted protein of transformed mouse fibroblasts (MEP) has recently been identified as the lysosomal cysteine protease, cathepsin L. The synthesis and intracellular trafficking of this protein in mouse fibroblasts are regulated by growth factors and malignant transformation. To further define the basis for this regulation, a cDNA encoding MEP/cathepsin L was isolated from a mouse liver cDNA library and used to compare cathepsin L of normal and Kirsten sarcoma virus-transformed NIH 3T3 fibroblasts. Although cathepsin L message levels were elevated 20-fold in the transformed fibroblasts, normal and transformed cells displayed similar cathepsin L genomic DNA digest patterns and gene copy numbers, and cathepsin L mRNA sequences appeared identical by RNase protection analysis. These findings indicate that (i) cathepsin L is synthesized from the same gene in normal and transformed cells and (ii) cathepsin L polypeptides made by these cells are translated with the same primary sequence. Cathepsin L polypeptides synthesized by quiescent, growing, and transformed cells displayed similar isoelectric focusing patterns, suggesting similar post-translational modification. Site-directed mutagenesis of the mouse liver cDNA and expression in COS monkey cells was used to examine the glycosylation of mouse cathepsin L. The results indicated that only one of the two potential N-linked glycosylation sites (the one at Asn221) is glycosylated. Analysis by ion exchange chromatography on QAE-Sephadex, and affinity chromatography on mannose 6-phosphate receptor-Affi-Gel 10, indicated that the cathepsin L oligosaccharide was phosphorylated similarly in normal and transformed cells. Although several phosphorylated oligosaccharide species were observed, the major species contained two phosphomonoester moieties and bound efficiently to the receptor. These findings suggest that cathepsin L made by normal and transformed mouse fibroblasts are identical and substantiate the hypothesis that trafficking of cathepsin L in these cells is regulated by growth-induced changes in the lysosomal protein transport system.