Cathepsin W is a member of the papain-like family of cysteine proteases. In this report, we have isolated the cDNA for murine CtsW (mCtsW) from a splenocyte library. The deduced 371-amino-acid sequence shares 68% identity with human CtsW and includes the conserved catalytic triad cysteine, histidine, and asparagine found in all members of this family. In addition to the full-length form of mCtsW, we have isolated an alternatively spliced form of the mRNA that lacks a complete catalytic triad. An S1 nuclease protection assay and a Western blot analysis showed that mCtsW is mainly restricted to the CD8+ T cell and natural killer cell compartments. In addition, we confirmed that, like its human homologue, mCtsW is localized mainly to the endoplasmic reticulum and its expression is up-regulated upon activation. We also characterized the mCtsW locus using bacterial artificial chromosome clones. The gene consists of 10 coding exons and 9 introns spanning 3.2 kb. To elucidate the physiologic role of this protease, we generated mice deficient in mCtsW. Our data establish that mCtsW is not required for cytotoxic lymphocyte-induced target cell death in vitro. In addition, mCtsW deficiency does not alter the susceptibility of cytotoxic lymphocytes to suicide or fratricide after degranulation. Thus, mCtsW does not have a unique role in target cell apoptosis or cytotoxic cell survival in vitro.