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Gelatinolytic metalloproteinases implicated in connective tissue remodeling and tumor invasion are secreted from several types of cells in the form of inactive zymogens. In this report, characterization of gelatinase activity secreted by the BR line of dog mastocytoma cells reveals a phorbol-inducible, approximately 92-kD, Ca2+ - and Zn2+ -dependent proenzyme cleaved over time to smaller, active forms. Incubation of cells with the general serine protease inhibitor, PMSF, prevented proenzyme cleavage and permitted its purification free of activation products. The NH2-terminal 13 amino acids of the purified mastocytoma progelatinase are 50-67% identical to those of human, mouse, and rabbit 92-kD progelatinase (gelatinase B; matrix metalloproteinase-9). Degranulation of mastocytoma cells using ionophore A23187 greatly accelerated proenzyme cleavage, suggesting that a serine protease present in secretory granules hydrolyzed the progelatinase to active fragments. To identify the activating protease, cells were coincubated with ionophore and a panel of selective serine protease inhibitors. Soybean trypsin inhibitor and succinyl-L-Ala-Ala-Pro-Phe-chloromethylketone, which inhibit mast cell chymase, prevented progelatinase activation. Inhibitors of tryptase and dog mast cell protease (dMCP)-3, i.e., aprotinin or bis(5-amidino-2-benzimidazolyl) methane (BABIM), did not. In further experiments using highly purified enzymes, mastocytoma cell chymase activated 92-kD progelatinase in the absence of other enzymes or cofactors; tryptase and dMCP-3, however, had no effect. These data demonstrate that dog mastocytoma cells secrete a metalloproteinase related to progelatinase B that is directly activated outside of the cell by exocytosed chymase, and provide the first demonstration of a cell that activates a matrix metalloproteinase it secretes by cosecreting an activating enzyme. In mastocytomas, this pathway may facilitate tumor invasion of surrounding tissues, and in normal mast cells, it could play a role in tissue remodeling and repair.