SENPs [Sentrin/SUMO (small ubiquitin-related modifier)-specific proteases] include proteases that activate the precursors of SUMOs, or deconjugate SUMOs attached to target proteins. SENPs are usually assayed on protein substrates, and for the first time we demonstrate that synthetic substrates can be convenient tools in determining activity and specificity of these proteases. We synthesized a group of short synthetic peptide fluorogenic molecules based on the cleavage site within SUMOs. We demonstrate the activity of human SENP1, 2, 5, 6, 7 and 8 on these substrates. A parallel positional scanning approach using a fluorogenic tetrapeptide library established preferences of SENPs in the P3 and P4 positions that allowed us to design optimal peptidyl reporter substrates. We show that the specificity of SENP1, 2, 5 and 8 on the optimal peptidyl substrates matches their natural protein substrates, and that the presence of the SUMO domain enhances catalysis by 2–3 orders of magnitude. We also show that SENP6 and 7 have an unexpected specificity that distinguishes them from other members of the family, implying that, in contrast to previous predictions, their natural substrate(s) may not be SUMO conjugates.

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