The cell-surface localization and site of activation of type IV collagenases/gelatinases (matrix metalloproteinases, MMP) in bovine pulmonary microvascular endothelial (BPMVE) cells was examined. Sucrose density centrifugation of plasma membranes and immunofluorescent staining of whole cells indicated association of 72 kDa (MMP-2) and 96 kDa (MMP-9) type IV collagenase/gelatinases with the plasma membrane. Incubation of the BPMVE cells with rhodaminated MMP-9 demonstrated colocalization with beta 1-integrin, indicating incorporation into the focal contacts. The focal contacts were extracted with saponin, and associated proteolytic activity was examined by zymography. The focal contacts contained latent MMP-2, and stimulation of the cells with cytochalasin D or with 8-bromoadenosine 3',5'-cyclic monophosphate with 3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine increased both latent and activated MMP-9 in the focal contacts. Addition of these stimuli in unconditioned culture medium did not produce this effect, indicating that the MMP-9 in focal contact extracts was derived from previously secreted enzyme. The activated metalloproteinase degraded extracellular matrix collagens and was inhibited by 1,10-phenanthroline. These findings indicate that endothelial cells release MMP into the extracellular milieu and then concentrate and activate MMP-9 from medium at the focal contacts.