The peptide-bond-specificity of bovine spleen cathepsin S in the cleavage of the oxidized insulin B-chain and peptide methylcoumarylamide substrates was investigated and the results are compared with those obtained with rat liver cathepsins L and B. Major cleavage sites in the oxidized insulin B-chain generated by cathepsin S are the bonds Glu13-Ala14, Leu17-Val18 and Phe23-Tyr26; minor cleavage sites are the bonds Asn3-Gln4, Ser9-His10 and Leu15-Tyr16. The bond-specificity of this proteinase is in part similar to the specificities of cathepsin L and cathepsin N. Larger differences are discernible in the reaction with synthetic peptide substrates. Cathepsin S prefers smaller neutral amino acid residues in the subsites S2 and S3, whereas cathepsin L efficiently hydrolyses substrates with bulky hydrophobic residues in the P2 and P3 positions. The results obtained from inhibitor studies differ somewhat from those based on substrates. Z-Phe-Ala-CH2F (where Z- represents benzyloxycarbonyl-) is a very potent time-dependent inhibitor for cathepsin S, and inhibits this proteinase 30 times more efficiently than it does cathepsin L and about 300 times better than it does cathepsin B. By contrast, the peptidylmethanes Z-Val-Phe-CH3 and Z-Phe-Lys(Z)-CH3 inhibit competitively both cathepsin S and cathepsin L in the micromolar range.