The plasminogen activator, surface protease Pla, of the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis is an important virulence factor that enables the spread of Y. pestis from subcutaneous sites into circulation. Pla-expressing Y. pestis and recombinant Escherichia coli formed active plasmin in the presence of the major human plasmin inhibitor, alpha2-antiplasmin, and the bacteria were found to inactivate alpha2-antiplasmin. In contrast, only poor plasminogen activation and no cleavage of alpha2-antiplasmin was observed with recombinant bacteria expressing the homologous gene ompT from E. coli. A beta-barrel topology model for Pla and OmpT predicted 10 transmembrane beta-strands and five surface-exposed loops L1-L5. Hybrid Pla-OmpT proteins were created by substituting each of the loops between Pla and OmpT. Analysis of the hybrid molecules suggested a critical role of L3 and L4 in the substrate specificity of Pla towards plasminogen and alpha2-antiplasmin. Substitution analysis at 25 surface-located residues showed the importance of the conserved residues H101, H208, D84, D86, D206 and S99 for the proteolytic activity of Pla-expressing recombinant E. coli. The mature alpha-Pla of 292 amino acids was processed into beta-Pla by an autoprocessing cleavage at residue K262, and residues important for the self-recognition of Pla were identified. Prevention of autoprocessing of Pla, however, had no detectable effect on plasminogen activation or cleavage of alpha2-antiplasmin. Cleavage of alpha2-antiplasmin and plasminogen activation were influenced by residue R211 in L4 as well as by unidentified residues in L3. OmpT, which is not associated with invasive bacterial disease, was converted into a Pla-like protease by deleting residues D214 and P215, by substituting residue K217 for R217 in L4 of OmpT and also by substituting the entire L3 with that from Pla. This simple modification of the surface loops and the substrate specificity of OmpT exemplifies the evolution of a housekeeping protein into a virulence factor by subtle mutations at critical protein regions. We propose that inactivation of alpha2-antiplasmin by Pla of Y. pestis promotes uncontrolled proteolysis and contributes to the invasive character of plague.