The terminal process of xylogenesis, autolysis, is essential for the formulation of a tubular system for conduction of water and solutes throughout the whole plant. Several hydrolase types are implicated in autolysis responsible for the breakdown of cytoplasm. Here, we characterize p48h-17 cDNA from in vitro tracheary elements (TEs) of Zinnia elegans which encodes a preproprotein similar to papain. The putative mature protein, a cysteine protease, has a molecular mass of 22,699 Da with a pI of 5.7. DNA gel blot analysis indicated that p48h-17 is likely encoded by one or two genes. The p48h-17 mRNA accumulated markedly in in vitro differentiating TEs, whereas it appeared not to be induced in response to senescence and wounding in the leaves or H2O2 challenge in the cultured mesophyll cells. In stems, the expression of the p48h-17 gene was preferentially associated with differentiating xylem. Activity gel assays demonstrated that a cysteine and a serine protease, which had apparent molecular masses of 20 kDa and 60 kDa, respectively, were markedly induced during in vitro TE differentiation. The cysteine protease activity was also preferentially present in the xylem of Zinnia stems. Transient expression of the p48h-17 cDNA in tobacco protoplasts resulted in the production of a 20 kDa cysteine protease. Taken together, the results indicate that the p48h-17 gene appears to be preferentially associated with xylogenesis, and both the cysteine and serine proteases might be involved in autolysis during xylogenesis.