A procedure for the synthesis of the fluorogenic substrate analogue 2'-(4-methylumbelliferyl)-alpha-D-N-acetylneuraminic acid for the human acid neuraminidase has been developed. The substrate was employed for the characterization of the enzyme in sonicates of cultured human skin fibroblasts and for enzymatic detection of the neuraminidase deficiency in the neurological storage disorder, sialidosis. Synthesis was accomplished by reacting 2-deoxy-2-chloro-4,7,8,9-tetra-O-acetyl-N-acetylneuraminic acid methyl ester with the sodium salt of 4-methylumbelliferone in acetonitrile at room temperature. The coupled product was purified on silicic acid chromatography, followed by base-catalyzed removal of the O-acetyl and methoxy blocking groups, and with additional purification of the hydrolyzed product on silicic acid. The overall yield, based on N-acetylneuraminic acid, was 37%. Under linear assay conditions, at pH 4.3, the apparent maximal velocities (nmol (mg of protein)-1 h-1) for normal fibroblasts were 58--115, 0.2--1.8 for sialidosis fibroblasts, and 28--38 for obligate heterozygotes. The apparent Km for normals was 0.13 mM.