The Clp proteases represent a large, ancient ATP-dependent protease family which in higher plants is known to be located in chloroplasts. The soluble, presumably multisubunit, enzyme of the organelle stroma is of dual genetic origin. It consists of a nuclear-encoded, regulatory subunit ClpC, which is an ATPase, and a plastid-encoded proteolytic subunit ClpP, which is a serine protease. An additional, nuclear-encoded proteolytic subunit resembling ClpP has been recently reported from tomato (Schaller and Ryan, 1995 plant gene Register 95-00). We demonstrate that in both tomato Lycopersicon esculentum Mill. and Arabidopsis thaliana, (L.) Heynh. the nuclear-encoded ClpP (nClpP) is made as a precursor molecule that can be imported into isolated intact chloroplasts of spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.) and processed in two or three steps, respectively, to the size of the authentic protein. Furthermore, both gel electrophoresis under non-denaturing conditions and size-exclusion chromatography verified that the three proteins can form distinct heteromeric supramolecular complexes of approximately 860, 1380 and 1700 kDa (probably also of 600 kDa) molecular mass. The size ranges of the former two are reminiscent of those of Clp complexes described from Escherichia coli. In addition, various complexes between 160 and 560 kDa are detectable with the individual components. Both the processing "intermediates" and the mature nClpP are found in assembled form.