The 49-kDa proteinase of tobacco etch virus (TEV) cleaves the polyprotein derived from the TEV genomic RNA at five locations. Molecular genetic and biochemical analyses of the 49-kDa TEV proteinase were performed to test its homology to the cellular trypsin-like serine proteases. A cDNA fragment, containing the TEV 49-kDa proteinase gene and flanking sequences, was expressed in a cell-free transcription/translation system and resulted in the formation of a polyprotein precursor that underwent rapid self-processing. Site-directed mutagenesis was used to test the effect of altering individual 49-kDa amino acid residues on proteolysis. The data suggest that the catalytic triad of the TEV 49-kDa proteinase could be composed of the His234, Asp269, and Cys339. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that the TEV 49-kDa proteinase is structurally similar to the trypsin-like family of serine proteinases with the substitution of Cys339 as the active site nucleophile. A structural model of the TEV 49-kDa proteinase proposes other virus-specific differences in the vicinity of the active site triad and substrate-binding pocket. The structure may explain the observed negligible effect of most cellular proteinase inhibitors on the activity of this viral proteinase.