A number of isolates of Aspergillus fumigatus obtained from the hospital environment produced extracellular elastolytic activity. This activity was found to be catalyzed by a single 33-kDa protein which was purified and characterized to be a serine protease. A. fumigatus, when grown on the insoluble structural material obtained from murine and bovine lung, produced the same extracellular 33-kDa elastolytic protease, indicating that this enzyme is likely to be produced when the organism infects the lung. Polymerase chain reaction with an oligonucleotide primer based on the N-terminal amino acid sequence of the elastolytic enzyme yielded a cDNA which was cloned and sequenced. The active serine motif showed more similarity to subtilisin than to mammalian elastase. The amino acid sequence showed 80% identity to the alkaline protease from Aspergillus oryzae. Screening of hospital isolates of Aspergillus flavus showed great variation in the production of elastolytic activity and a much lower level of activity than that produced by A. fumigatus. The elastolytic protease from A. flavus was shown to be a serine protease susceptible to modification and inactivation by active serine and histidine-directed reagents. This protease cross-reacted with the antibodies prepared against the elastolytic protease from A. fumigatus. Immunogold localization of the elastolytic enzyme showed that A. fumigatus germinating and penetrating into the lungs of neutropenic mice secreted the elastolytic protease. An elastase-deficient mutant generated from a highly virulent isolate of A. fumigatus caused drastically reduced mortality when nasally introduced into the lung of neutropenic mice. All of the evidence suggests that extracellular elastolytic protease is a significant virulence factor in invasive aspergillosis.