An accurate three-dimensional structure is known for papain (1.65 A resolution) and actinidin (1.7 A). A detailed comparison of these two structures was performed to determine the effect of amino acid changes on the conformation. It appeared that, despite only 48% identity in their amino acid sequence, different crystallization conditions and different X-ray data collection techniques, their structures are surprisingly similar with a root-mean-square difference of 0.40 A between 76% of the main-chain atoms (differences less than 3 sigma). Insertions and deletions cause larger differences but they alter the conformation over a very limited range of two to three residues only. Conformations of identical side-chains are generally retained to the same extent as the main-chain conformation. If they do change, this is due to a modified local environment. Several examples are described. Spatial positions of hydrogen bonds are conserved to a greater extent than are the specific groups involved. The greatest structural similarity is found for the active site residues of papain and actinidin, for the internal water molecules and for the main-chain conformation of residues in alpha-helices and anti-parallel beta-sheet structure. This was reflected also in the similarity of the temperature factors. It suggests that the secondary structural elements form the skeleton of the molecule and that their interaction is the main factor in directing the fold of the polypeptide chain. Therefore, substitution of residues in the skeleton will, in general, have the most drastic effect on the conformation of the protein molecule. In papain and actinidin, some main-chain-side-chain hydrogen bonds are also strongly conserved and these may determine the folding of non-repetitive parts of the structure. Furthermore, we included primary structure information for three homologous thiol proteases: stem bromelain, and the cathepsins B and H. By combining the three-dimensional structural information for papain and actinidin with sequence homologies and identities, we conclude that the overall folding pattern of the polypeptide chain is grossly the same in all five proteases, and that they utilize the same catalytic mechanism.