Elafin (elastase-specific inhibitor) is a low molecular weight inhibitor of neutrophil elastase which is secreted in the lung. Using synthetic peptides corresponding to full-length elafin (H2N-1AVT.....95Q-OH), the NH2-terminal domain (H2N-1AVT.....50K-OH) and the COOH-terminal domain (H2N-51PGS.....95Q-OH), we demonstrate that elafin's anti-elastase activity resides exclusively in the COOH-terminus. Several characteristics of elafin suggest potential anti-microbial activity. The anti-microbial activity of elafin, and of its two structural domains, was tested against the respiratory pathogens Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus. Elafin killed both bacteria efficiently, with 93% killing of P. aeruginosa by 2.5 microM elafin and 48% killing of S. aureus by 25 microM elafin. For both organisms, full-length elafin was required to optimise bacterial killing. These findings represent the first demonstration of co-existent anti-proteolytic and anti-microbial functions for elafin.