Ingestion of soybean Kunitz trypsin inhibitor (SKTI) by larvae of the phytophagous insect pest Helicoverpa armigera induced production of inhibitor-insensitive protease activity. The induced activity was not due to proteolytic enzymes of different mechanistic classes, but rather to variants of the existing enzymes. Characterization of cDNAs showed that sequences encoding proteins of the serine protease family were abundant in gut tissue of both control and SKTI-fed insects. The majority of serine protease family cDNAs encode enzymes closely homologous to trypsin and chymotrypsin; comparison of these sequences shows variation in amino acid residues within the region which would be in contact with a protein protease inhibitor. More diverged sequences which may not encode active proteases are also present. All the cDNAs examined were found to derive from multigene families; at least 28 different genes are present in the serine protease family. Chronic ingestion of SKTI results in some serine protease-encoding mRNA species increasing in level, whereas others decrease. Chymotrypsin-encoding mRNAs tend to increase in level as a result of SKTI ingestion, but no clear trend is shown by trypsin-encoding mRNAs. It is suggested that multiple, varying protease-encoding genes are an adaptive mechanism for reducing the deleterious effects of plant protease inhibitors.