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pep4 mutants of Saccharomyces cerevisiae accumulate inactive precursors of vacuolar hydrolases. The PEP4 gene was isolated from a genomic DNA library by complementation of the pep4-3 mutation. Deletion analysis localized the complementing activity to a 1.5-kilobase pair EcoRI-XhoI restriction enzyme fragment. This fragment was used to identify an 1,800-nucleotide mRNA capable of directing the synthesis of a 44,000-dalton polypeptide. Southern blot analysis of yeast genomic DNA showed that the PEP4 gene is unique; however, several related sequences exist in yeasts. Tetrad analysis and mitotic recombination experiments localized the PEP4 gene proximal to GAL4 on chromosome XVI. Analysis of the DNA sequence indicated that PEP4 encodes a polypeptide with extensive homology to the aspartyl protease family. A comparison of the PEP4 predicted amino acid sequence with the yeast protease A protein sequence revealed that the two genes are, in fact, identical (see also Ammerer et al., Mol. Cell. Biol. 6:2490-2499, 1986). Based on our observations, we propose a model whereby inactive precursor molecules produced from the PEP4 gene self-activate within the yeast vacuole and subsequently activate other vacuolar hydrolases.