Migrating cells degrade pericellular matrices and basement membranes. For these purposes cells produce a number of proteolytic enzymes. Mast cells produce two major proteinases, chymase and tryptase, whose physiological functions are poorly known. In the present study we have analyzed the ability of purified human mast cell tryptase to digest pericellular matrices of human fibroblasts. Isolated matrices of human fibroblasts and fibroblast conditioned medium were treated with tryptase, and alterations in the radiolabeled polypeptides were observed in autoradiograms of sodium dodecyl sulphate polyacrylamide gels. It was found that an M(r) 72,000 protein was digested to an M(r) 62,000 form by human mast cell tryptase while the plasminogen activator inhibitor, PAI-1, was not affected. Cleavage of the M(r) 72,000 protein could be partially inhibited by known inhibitors of tryptase but not by aprotinin, soybean trypsin inhibitor, or EDTA. Fibroblastic cells secreted the M(r) 72,000 protein into their medium and it bound to gelatin as shown by analysis of the medium by affinity chromatography over gelatin-Sepharose. The soluble form of the M(r) 72,000 protein was also susceptible to cleavage by tryptase. Analysis using gelatin containing polyacrylamide gels showed that both the intact M(r) 72,000 and the M(r) 62,000 degraded form of the protein possess gelatinolytic activity after activation by sodium dodecyl sulphate. Immunoblotting analysis of the matrices revealed the cleavage of an immunoreactive protein of M(r) 72,000 indicating that the protein is related to type IV collagenase. Further analysis of the pericellular matrices indicated that the protease sensitive extracellular matrix protein fibronectin was removed from the matrix by tryptase in a dose-dependent manner. Fibronectin was also susceptible to proteolytic degradation by tryptase. The data suggest a role for mast cell tryptase in the degradation of pericellular matrices.