The closely related serpins squamous cell carcinoma antigen-1 and -2 (SCCA-1 and -2, respectively) are capable of inhibiting cysteine proteases of the papain superfamily. To ascertain whether the ability to inhibit cysteine proteases is an intrinsic property of serpins in general, the reactive center loop (RCL) of the archetypal serine protease inhibitor alpha(1)-antitrypsin was replaced with that of SCCA-1. It was found that this simple substitution could convert alpha(1)-antitrypsin into a cysteine protease inhibitor, albeit an inefficient one. The RCL of SCCA-1 is three residues longer than that of alpha(1)-antitrypsin, and therefore, the effect of loop length on the cysteine protease inhibitory activity was investigated. Mutants in which the RCL was shortened by one, two, or three residues were effective inhibitors with second-order rate constants of 10(5)-10(7) M(-)(1) s(-)(1). In addition to loop length, the identity of the cysteine protease was of considerable importance, since the chimeric molecules inhibited cathepsins L, V, and K efficiently, but not papain or cathepsin B. By testing complexes between an RCL-mimicking peptide and the mutants, it was found that the formation of a stable serpin-cysteine protease complex and the inhibition of a cysteine protease were both critically dependent on RCL insertion. The results strongly indicate that the serpin body is intrinsically capable of supporting cysteine protease inhibition, and that the complex with a papain-like cysteine protease would be expected to be analogous to that seen with serine proteases.