An inactive precursor to the active exocellular protease 1 of Pseudomonas aeruginosa is cell-associated and located primarily in the periplasmic space. We have studied factors that bring about activation of the precursor in vitro in order to shed some light on the process of its activation and secretion in vivo. A variety of diverse procedures were shown to effect irreversible activation. Several mild non-enzymatic procedures were effective, such as dialysis of an ammonium sulfate precipitate against neutral buffers, gel filtration (Sephadex G-100), and ion-exchange chromatography (DEAE-cellulose). Activation also resulted following treatment with anionic detergents (sodium dodecyl sulfate, N-lauroyl sarcosine) and deoxycholate. Limited exposure to any of several proteases with different specificities also resulted in activation. The kinetics of detergent-catalyzed activation reveals a long lag followed by rapid activation, suggesting at least a two-stage process. The precursor and the mature protease 1 have indistinguishable molecular masses (33 kDa), as measured by sodium dodecyl sulfate/polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis of these proteins purified by immunoabsorbance chromatography under denaturing conditions. Further, both precursor and protease have identical N-terminal alanine. Our results suggest that it is improbable that activation is the result of proteolytic processing of the precursor itself, but rather that it may involve the removal of a non-covalently associated inhibitor molecule. Hydrophobic interaction chromatography on octyl-Sepharose revealed that activation was accompanied by a significant change in the hydrophobicity, pointing to a significant change in the conformation of the precursor and the mature protease. A mutant has been studied which accumulates activatable precursor in the periplasm but releases no active enzyme into the culture medium, supporting the hypothesis that secretion through the inner and outer membranes proceed by different mechanisms. Comparison of outer membranes of protease-secreting strains (34362A and PAKS 1) and a protease-negative mutant (PAKS 18) which accumulates precursor has shown that there is a change in the outer membrane protein profile in the latter.