Untreated Staphylococcus aureus cells, strain Cowan I, specifically bound 125I-Glu-plasminogen. The binding was inhibited by both unlabeled Glu-plasminogen and Glu-plasmin. The Lys form of plasminogen, which lacks the 8-kDa amino-terminal activation peptide, was approximately 100-fold more effective than the Glu form in competing with the binding of 125I-labeled Glu-plasminogen. This suggests an increase in binding affinity upon removal of the activation peptide. Fibronectin, fibrinogen and IgG, plasma components known to bind to the staphylococcal surface, did not significantly interfere with the binding. The competing activity in plasma was abolished by specifically absorbing plasminogen from the plasma sample. L-Lysine and a fragment of plasminogen containing three of the first five protein attachment domains present in the molecule (kringle structures) also competed with plasminogen for binding suggesting that the lysine-binding sites of plasminogen were involved in its interaction with staphylococci. Scatchard analysis revealed high- and low-affinity binding sites. Kd and the number of high-affinity binding sites were 1.7 nM and 780 binding sites/bacterial cell, respectively. 125I-Glu-plasminogen bound to staphylococcal surface was converted to plasmin by tissue-type plasminogen activator. The conversion took place also in the presence of plasma. If the conversion was carried out in the absence of low-molecular-mass plasmin inhibitors such as aprotinin, the bound Glu-plasmin was further converted to Lys-plasmin. The surface-bound plasmin was enzymically active, as judged by digestion of the synthetic substrate, S-2251. The plasminogen conversion shown by the present experiments not only leads to the surface-bound plasmin but seems to considerably increase the affinity of plasmin for its binding site. This may represent a physiologically relevant method for a bacterial cell to retain surface-bound active plasmin which is also protected from its soluble plasma inhibitors. This novel mechanism for staphylococci to adopt surface-bound proteolytic activity, without the interference of plasma components, may have some role in the tissue penetration and invasion of microbes during infection.