The human bacterial pathogen Helicobacter pylori has been suggested to be the causative agent of the most common chronic infection of man. Since its first isolation in 1982, H. pylori has been associated with gastric and duodenal ulcer disease, and more recently, gastric cancer. The proteolytic digestion of gastric mucus by this microorganism has been suggested as an important mechanism by which its pathogenicity is at least partly exerted. Here we report the detection of protease activity in H. pylori total-cell and supernatant extracts. On the basis that zinc metalloproteases are common microbial pathogenicity factors, we identified a single protein in H. pylori protein extracts with antibodies to the Pseudomonas aeruginosa elastase (a secreted zinc metalloprotease). This same protein was identified by pooled serum from patients infected with H. pylori. We used the functional and immunological relationship between the P. aeruginosa elastase and the Vibrio cholerae haemagglutinin/protease (HAP) to clone the H. pylori hap gene, which was over 99% similar to the V. cholerae hap gene in the coding region. A 4 kb DNA fragment containing the entire cloned gene was highly unstable in Escherichia coli and Bacillus subtilis cloning vectors. We also demonstrated that a hap-like gene sequence is present in all nine Helicobacter species so far discovered. The V. cholerae HAP was first classified on the basis of its mucinase activity.