Polymorphonuclear neutrophil (PMN) migration across basement membrane is thought to be dependent on the degradation of membrane constituents. PMN gelatinase B, a metalloproteinase able to degrade type IV collagen, may be involved in this phenomenon. PMN gelatinase B is released in the extracellular medium as a latent proform and then activated, mainly by PMN elastase. We investigated the role of gelatinase B in PMN migration across a Matrigel basement membrane matrix coated onto a filter, in a Boyden chamber. The effects of gelatinase and elastase inhibitors on PMN migration in this system were tested. Chemokinesis of PMN was tested in the same Boyden chamber across a filter free of basement membrane. The agarose method was used to test the same inhibitors for effects on PMN chemotaxis. In both systems, FMLP 10(-7)M was used as a chemoattractant. Addition of 10(-8)M TIMP-1 (the preferential gelatinase B inhibitor) inhibited trans-basement membrane PMN migration by 52 +/- 6% (P<0.05), without affecting PMN chemokinesis, chemotaxis, or degranulation. Also, (Ala)(2) Pro Val chloromethyl ketone (AAPVCK) 100 micron, a specific elastase inhibitor, inhibited trans-basement membrane PMN migration by 51 +/- 8% (P<0.05), without affecting PMN chemokinesis, chemotaxis, or degranulation. The AAPVCK-TIMP combination led to a decrease in migration across Matrigel basement membrane (46 +/- 2%, P,0.05)similar to that seen with TIMP alone. AAPVCK was responsible for inhibition of gelatinase B activation, leading to a decrease in activated gelatinase from 14% to 2% of total gelatinase release (P<0.05). All these results strongly suggest that gelatinase B is a major factor of PMN migration across basement membrane and that elastase may contribute to this process by activating pro-gelatinase B.