The amyloid precursor protein (APP) of Alzheimer's disease is a transmembrane protein that is cleaved within its extracellular domain, liberating a soluble N-terminal fragment (sAPP alpha). Putative mediators of this process include three members of the ADAM (a disintegrin and metalloprotease) family, ADAM9, ADAM10 and ADAM17/TACE (tumour necrosis factor-alpha converting enzyme). Tumour necrosis factor-alpha protease inhibitor (TAPI-1), an inhibitor of ADAMs, reduced constitutive and muscarinic receptor-stimulated sAPP alpha release in HEK-293 cells stably expressing M3 muscarinic receptors. However, the former was less sensitive to TAPI-1 (IC(50)=8.09 microM) than the latter (IC(50)=3.61 microM), suggesting that these processes may be mediated by different metalloproteases. Constitutive sAPP alpha release was increased several-fold in cells transiently transfected with TACE, and this increase was proportional to TACE expression. In contrast, muscarinic-receptor-activated sAPP alpha release was not altered in TACE transfectants. TACE-dependent constitutive release of co-transfected APP(695) was inhibited by TAPI-1 with an IC(50) of 0.92 microm, a value significantly lower than the IC(50)s for inhibition of either constitutive or receptor-regulated sAPP alpha shedding mediated by endogenous secretases. The results indicate that TACE is capable of catalysing constitutive alpha-secretory cleavage of APP, but it is likely that additional members of the ADAM family mediate endogenous constitutive and receptor-coupled release of sAPP alpha in HEK-293 cells.