The formation of stable complexes between serpins and their target serine proteinases indicates formation of an ester bond between the proteinase active-site serine and the serpin P1 residue [Egelund, R., Rodenburg, K.W., Andreasen, P.A., Rasmussen, M.S., Guldberg, R.E. & Petersen, T.E. (1998) Biochemistry 37, 6375-6379]. An important question concerning serpin inhibition is the contrast between the stability of the ester bond in the complex and the rapid hydrolysis of the acyl-enzyme intermediate in general serine proteinase-catalysed peptide bond hydrolysis. To answer this question, we used limited proteolysis to detect conformational differences between free urokinase-type plasminogen activator (uPA) and uPA in complex with plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1). Whereas the catalytic domain of free uPA, pro-uPA, uPA in complex with non-serpin inhibitors and anhydro-uPA in a non-covalent complex with PAI-1 was resistant to proteolysis, the catalytic domain of PAI-1-complexed uPA was susceptible to proteolysis. The cleavage sites for four different proteinases were localized in specific areas of the C-terminal beta-barrel of the catalytic domain of uPA, providing evidence that the serpin inhibitory mechanism involves a serpin-induced massive rearrangement of the proteinase active site, including the specificity pocket, the oxyanion hole, and main-chain binding area, rendering the proteinase unable to complete the normal hydrolysis of the acyl-enzyme intermediate. The distorted region includes the so-called activation domain, also known to change conformation on zymogen activation.