Phytases are enzymes that catalyze liberation of inorganic phosphates from phytate, the major organic phosphorus in soil. Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) responds to phosphorus starvation with an increase in extracellular phytase activity. By a three-step purification scheme, a phosphatase with phytase activity was purified 486-fold from tobacco root exudates to a specific activity of 6,028 nkat mg(-1) and an overall yield of 3%. SDS-PAGE revealed a single polypeptide of 64 kDa, thus indicating apparent homogeneity of the final enzyme preparation. Gel filtration chromatography suggested that the enzyme was a ca. 56 kDa monomeric protein. De novo sequencing by tandem mass spectrometry resulted in a tryptic peptide sequence that shares high homology with several plant purple acid phosphatases. The identity of the enzyme was further confirmed by molybdate-inhibition assay and cDNA cloning. The purified enzyme exhibited pH and temperature optima at 5.0-5.5 and 45 degrees C, respectively, and were found to have high affinities for both p-nitrophenyl phosphate (pNPP; K(m)=13.9 microM) and phytate (K(m)=14.7 microM), but a higher kcat for pNPP (2,056 s(-1)) than phytate (908 s(-1)). Although a broad specificity of the enzyme was observed for a range of physiological substrates in soil, maximum activity was achieved using mononucleotides as substrates. We conclude that the phytase activity in tobacco root exudates is exhibited by a purple acid phosphatase and its catalytic properties are pertinent to its role in mobilizing organic P in soil.