We have purified and extensively characterized a 19-S particle from sea urchin eggs. This particle is the sea urchin homologue of the "prosome", a particle originally identified in duck erythroblasts. We now show that these sea urchin prosomes contain multiple proteolytic activities. As shown for analogous particles from other cells, these particles hydrolyze synthetic substrates containing neutral hydrophobic or basic amino acids at the carboxy terminus of the synthetic peptides. They contain 16-20 small proteins ranging in molecular weight from 20,000 to 32,000. Peptide mapping shows that most of the polypeptides are unique, however, three exist in two isoelectric forms. We have investigated the possible function of the sea urchin multicatalytic proteases (MCPs) by determining their subcellular distribution, their relationship to egg snRNPs, and their possible role in translational repression. There are almost as many MCPs (2 x 10(8] as ribosomes (6.6 x 10(8] or mRNPs (1.8 x 10(7] per egg. This suggests that like ribosomes, the MCPs are stored in the egg for use during later development. We find that a substantial proportion of egg MCPs move into nuclei by the late blastula stage. Using a specific antibody against one of the sea urchin MCP proteins and antibodies against U1- U6, La, and Ro RNPs, we show that the sea urchin particle is distinct from these RNPs, although the anti-U1-U6 RNP antibody cross-reacts with a single MCP protein. In addition, the sea urchin MCP appears to be associated with a large structure in the cytoplasm of unfertilized eggs and is released under the same conditions that activate egg mRNPs in vitro.