Proteolytic activity was detected within polyhedra of the nuclear polyhedrosis virus of Spodoptera littoralis. The enzyme activity was detected by its ability to degrade the major structural polypeptide of polyhedra (polyhedrin). A quantitative assessment of activity was made by a radioassay technique using (3)H-labeled polyhedrin as the substrate. Of the structural components of polyhedra, virus particles showed the greatest specific proteolytic activity. Preparations of purified nucleocapsids were inactive. The virus particle enzyme displayed a temperature optimum for proteolysis of 30 to 40 degrees C and a pH optimum of 9.6. Its activity was inhibited by H(2+) and Cu(2+), but not by 2-mercaptoethanol. The enzyme was purified from detergent-treated virus particles by affinity column chromatography, using polyhedrin linked to cyanogen bromide-activated Sepharose. Three major envelope polypeptides (L107, L85, and L71) bound to the column at 4 degrees C, but after incubation at 31 degrees C, polypeptide L71 alone was eluted. The fractions containing this protein exhibited a specific enzyme activity more than 80-fold greater than that present in polyhedra. The possible significance of the alkaline protease, and other proteins with affinity for polyhedrin, is discussed.