The cathepsin L propeptide (phcl-2) was expressed in Saccharomyces cerevisiae using a human procathepsin L/alpha-factor fusion construct containing a stop codon at position -1 (the C-terminal amino acid of the proregion). Since the yield after purification was very low, the cathepsin L propeptide was also obtained by an alternate procedure through controlled processing of an inactive mutant of procathepsin L (Cys25Ser/Thrl10Ala) expressed in Pichia pastoris, by small amounts of cathepsin L. The peptide resulting from the cleavage of the proenzyme (phcl-1) was then purified by HPLC. The purified propeptides were characterized by N-terminal sequencing and mass spectrometry and correspond to incomplete forms of the proregion (87 and 81 aa for phcl-1 and phcl-2 respectively, compared to 96 aa for the complete cathepsin L propeptide). The two peptides were found to be potent and selective inhibitors of cathepsin L at pH 5.5, with Ki values of 0.088 nM for phcl-1 and 0.66 nM for phcl-2. The Ki for inhibition of cathepsin S was much higher (44.6 nM with phcl-1), and no inhibition of cathepsin B or papain could be detected at up to 1 microM of the propeptide. The inhibitory activity was also found to be strongly pH-dependent. Two synthetic peptides of 75 and 44 aa corresponding to N-terminal truncated versions of the propeptide were also prepared by solid phase synthesis and displayed Ki values of 11 nM and 2900 nM, respectively, against cathepsin L. The data obtained for the 4 propeptide derivatives of various lengths indicate that the first 20 residues in the N-terminal region of the propeptide are more important for inhibition than the C-terminal region which contributes little to the overall inhibitory activity.