Cell-surface heparan sulphate proteoglycans (HSPGs) are ubiquitous and abundant receptors/co-receptors of extracellular ligands, including many microbes. Their role in microbial infections is poorly defined, however, because no cell-surface HSPG has been clearly connected to the pathogenesis of a particular microbe. We have previously shown that Pseudomonas aeruginosa, through its virulence factor LasA, enhances the in vitro shedding of syndecan-1-the predominant cell-surface HSPG of epithelia. Here we show that shedding of syndecan-1 is also activated by P. aeruginosa in vivo, and that the resulting syndecan-1 ectodomains enhance bacterial virulence in newborn mice. Newborn mice deficient in syndecan-1 resist P. aeruginosa lung infection but become susceptible when given purified syndecan-1 ectodomains or heparin, but not when given ectodomain core protein, indicating that the ectodomain's heparan sulphate chains are the effectors. In wild-type newborn mice, inhibition of syndecan-1 shedding or inactivation of the shed ectodomain's heparan sulphate chains prevents lung infection. Our findings uncover a pathogenetic mechanism in which a host response to tissue injury-syndecan-1 shedding-is exploited to enhance microbial virulence apparently by modulating host defences.