In vivo most extracellular iron is bound to transferrin or lactoferrin in such a way as to be unable to catalyze the formation of hydroxyl radical from superoxide (.O2-) and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). At sites of Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection bacterial and neutrophil products could possibly modify transferrin and/or lactoferrin forming catalytic iron complexes. To examine this possibility, diferrictransferrin and diferriclactoferrin which had been incubated with pseudomonas elastase, pseudomonas alkaline protease, human neutrophil elastase, trypsin, or the myeloperoxidase product HOCl were added to a hypoxanthine/xanthine oxidase .O2-/H2O2 generating system. Hydroxyl radical formation was only detected with pseudomonas elastase treated diferrictransferrin and, to a much lesser extent, diferriclactoferrin. This effect was enhanced by the combination of pseudomonas elastase with other proteases, most prominently neutrophil elastase. Addition of pseudomonas elastase-treated diferrictransferrin to stimulated neutrophils also resulted in hydroxyl radical generation. Incubation of pseudomonas elastase with transferrin which had been selectively iron loaded at either the NH2- or COOH-terminal binding site yielded iron chelates with similar efficacy for hydroxyl radical catalysis. Pseudomonas elastase and HOCl treatment also decreased the ability of apotransferrin to inhibit hydroxyl radical formation by a Fe-NTA supplemented hypoxanthine/xanthine oxidase system. However, apotransferrin could be protected from the effects of HOCl if bicarbonate anion was present during the incubation. Apolactoferrin inhibition of hydroxyl radical generation was unaffected by any of the four proteases or HOCl. Alteration of transferrin by enzymes and oxidants present at sites of pseudomonas and other bacterial infections may increase the potential for local hydroxyl radical generation thereby contributing to tissue injury.