Biologically active, mature IL-1 beta (mIL-1 beta) is released from activated monocytes after proteolytic processing from an inactive precursor (pIL-1 beta). IL-1 beta converting enzyme (ICE), the first member of a newly discovered family of cysteine proteinases, is required for this processing event. The cleaved cytokine is released from monocytes by an unknown mechanism which does not employ a standard hydrophobic signal sequence. As in mammalian fibroblasts, insect Sf9 cells do not normally process or secrete human IL-1 beta. The expression of active ICE enables Sf9 cells to process 31-kDa pIL-1 beta correctly at Asp27 and Asp116, and to export 17.5-kDa mIL-1 beta. The recombinant heterodimeric human enzyme purified from Sf9 cells possesses a sp. act. of 2.9 +/- 0.5 x 10(6) U/mg and is indistinguishable from native ICE with regard to its subunit composition and catalytic properties. In this system, co-expression of the cowpox virus crmA gene, an extremely potent serpin inhibitor of ICE (Ki < 7 pM), inhibits ICE activation completely and blocks pIL-1 beta processing and mIL-1 beta secretion by approximately 95%. The results indicate that ICE, in addition to its processing function, facilitates the transport of IL-1 beta across the plasma membrane.