We recently reported the purification of a lymphocyte granule protein called "fragmentin," which was identified as a serine protease with the ability to induce oligonucleosomal DNA fragmentation and apoptosis (Shi, L., R. P. Kraut, R. Aebersold, and A. H. Greenberg. 1992. J. Exp. Med. 175:553). We have now purified two additional proteases with fragmentin activity from lymphocyte granules. The three proteases are of two types; one has the unusual ability to cleave a tripeptide thiobenzyl ester substrate after aspartic acid, similar to murine cytotoxic cell protease I/granzyme B, while two are tryptase-like, preferentially hydrolyzing after arginine, and bear some homology to human T cell granule tryptases, granzyme 3, and Hanukah factor/granzyme A. Using tripeptide chloromethyl ketones, the pattern of inhibition of DNA fragmentation corresponded to the inhibition of peptide hydrolysis. The Asp-ase fragmentin was blocked by aspartic acid-containing tripeptide chloromethyl ketones, while the tryptase fragmentins were inhibited by arginine-containing chloromethyl ketones. The two tryptase fragmentins were slow acting and were partly suppressed by blocking proteins synthesis with cycloheximide in the YAC-1 target cell. In contrast, the Asp-ase fragmentin was fast acting and produced DNA damage in the absence of protein synthesis. Using a panel of unrelated target cells of lymphoma, thymoma, and melanoma origin, distinct patterns of sensitivity to the three fragmentins were observed. Thus, these three granule proteases make up a family of fragmentins that activate DNA fragmentation and apoptosis by acting on unique substrates in different target cells.