The ability of benzyloxycarbonyl-(125I)Tyr-Ala-CHN2 to label cysteine proteinases in a variety of human tissues was investigated. The inhibitor bound only to cathepsin B in tissues homogenized at pH 5.0. When liver was autolysed at pH 4.0 for up to 4 h, the inhibitor also bound to a protein of Mr 25,000. This was identified immunologically and chromatographically as cathepsin L. Both cathepsins B and L were found primarily in kidney, liver and spleen. In spleen, an additional protein of Mr 25,000 was also labelled. This protein could not be precipitated by antibodies to any of cathepsins B, H and L. This protein has tentatively been identified as human cathepsin S by its tissue distribution, chromatographic properties and molecular size. This work clearly shows that peptidyldiazomethanes are specific probes for cysteine proteinases, and that benzyloxycarbonyl-(125I)Tyr-Ala-CHN2 binds to three such enzymes in human tissues.

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