Neutrophil elastase is a serine protease that is abundant in the airways of individuals with cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease manifested by excessive airway Na(+) absorption and consequent depletion of the airway surface liquid layer. Although endogenous epithelium-derived serine proteases regulate epithelial Na(+) transport, the effects of neutrophil elastase on epithelial Na(+) transport and epithelial Na(+) channel (ENaC) activity are unknown. Low micromolar concentrations of human neutrophil elastase (hNE) applied to the apical surface of a human bronchial cell line (16HBE14o-/beta gamma) increased Na(+) transport about twofold. Similar effects were observed with trypsin, also a serine protease. Proteolytic inhibitors of hNE or trypsin selectively abolished the enzyme-induced increase of epithelial Na(+) transport. At the level of the single channel, submicromolar concentrations of hNE increased activity of near-silent ENaC approximately 108-fold in patches from NIH-3T3 cells expressing rat alpha-, beta-, and gamma-ENaC subunits. However, no enzyme effects were observed on basally active ENaCs. Trypsin exposure following hNE revealed no additional increase in amiloride-sensitive short-circuit current or in ENaC activity, suggesting these enzymes share a common mode of action for increasing Na(+) transport, likely through proteolytic activation of ENaC. The hNE-induced increase of near-silent ENaC activity in CF airways could contribute to Na(+) hyperabsorption, reduced airway surface liquid height, and dehydrated mucus culminating in inefficient mucociliary clearance.