The protein crystals found in potato (Solanum tuberosum L.) tuber cells consist of a single 85-kD polypeptide. This polypeptide is an inhibitor of papain and other cysteine proteinases and is capable of binding several proteinase molecules simultaneously (P. Rodis, J.E. Hoff  Plant Physiol 74: 907-911). We have characterized this unusual inhibitor in more detail. Titrations of papain activity with the potato papain inhibitor showed that there are eight papain binding sites per inhibitor molecule. The inhibition constant (Ki) value for papain inhibition was 0.1 nM. Treatment of the inhibitor with trypsin resulted in fragmentation of the 85-kD polypeptide into a 32-kD polypeptide and five 10-kD polypeptides. The 32-kD and 10-kD fragments all retained the ability to potently inhibit papain (Ki values against papain were 0.5 and 0.7 nM, respectively) and the molar stoichiometries of papain binding were 2 to 3:1 and 1:1, respectively. Other nonspecific proteinases such as chymotrypsin, subtilisin Carlsberg, thermolysin, and proteinase K also cleaved the 85-kD inhibitor polypeptide into functional 22-kD and several 10-kD fragments. The fragments obtained by digestion of the potato papain inhibitor with trypsin were purified by reverse-phase high-performance liquid chromatography, and the N-terminal amino acid sequence was obtained for each fragment. Comparison of these sequences showed that the fragments shared a high degree of homology but were not identical. The sequences were homologous to the N termini of members of the cystatin superfamily of cysteine proteinase inhibitors. Therefore, the inhibitor appears to comprise eight tandem cystatin domains linked by preteolytically sensitive junctions. We have called the inhibitor potato multicystatin (PMC). By immunoblot analysis and measurement of papain inhibitory activity, PMC was found at high levels in potato leaves (up to 0.6 microgram/g fresh weight tissue), where it accumulated under conditions that induce the accumulation of other proteinase inhibitors linked to plant defense. PMC may have a similar defensive role, for example in protecting the plant from phytophagous insects that utilize cysteine proteinases for dietary protein digestion.