Two active forms (Mr 45,000 and 28,000) of a metalloendopeptidase that digest proteoglycans and other extracellular matrix components of connective tissues have previously been purified from rheumatoid synovial cells and characterized [Okada, Nagase & Harris (1986) J. Biol. Chem. 261, 14245-14255]. To study the mechanisms of activation the precursor of this metalloendopeptidase has now been purified. The final products are homogeneous on SDS/polyacrylamide-gel electrophoresis and identified as a set of zymogens of Mr 57,000 and 59,000, in which the latter form is probably the product of post-translational glycosylation of the Mr 57,000 zymogen, as it binds to concanavalin A. The zymogen can be activated by trypsin, chymotrypsin, plasma kallikrein, plasmin and thermolysin, but not by thrombin. Although the activated metalloendopeptidase is further degraded by trypsin, plasma kallikrein and thermolysin during a prolonged incubation, it is relatively stable against plasmin and chymotrypsin. Activation with 4-aminophenylmercuric acetate is dependent on its concentration. It requires the reaction with the zymogen, possibly through thiol groups, and the continued presence of the agent. During this treatment the zymogen undergoes a sequential processing; first it becomes active without changing its apparent molecular mass, and then it is processed to low-Mr species of Mr 46,000, 45,000 (HMM) and 28,000 (LMM). The rate of conversion of the precursor into an initial intermediate of Mr 46,000 follows first-order kinetics (t1/2 2.0 h with 1.5 mM-4-amino-phenylmercuric acetate at 37 degrees C) and is independent of the initial concentration of the zymogen or the presence of up to a 676-fold molar excess of substrate, whereas the generation of HMM and LMM species is affected by these parameters. These results indicate that activation of the prometalloendopeptidase by an organomercurial compound is initiated by the molecular perturbation of the zymogen that results in conversion into the 46,000-Mr intermediate by an intramolecular action; the subsequent processing of this intermediate in HMM and LMM species is a bimolecular reaction. In vivo it is probable that the precursor of this metalloendopeptidase is activated either by direct limited proteolysis by tissue or plasma endopeptidases, or, alternatively, by factors that cause certain conformational changes in the zymogen molecule.

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