The gene for a novel, high molecular weight protein secreted by Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) has been cloned, sequenced and characterized with respect to its activity. This gene, designated pssA, is localized on the large plasmid that also harbours the STEC haemolysin operon. Sequencing of a region comprising 10630nt revealed that the sequences flanking the pssA gene are composed of several remnants of different insertion elements. The PssA protein is produced as a 142kDa precursor molecule that, after N- and C-terminal processing, is released into the culture supernatant as a mature polypeptide of approximately 104kDa. The primary sequence of PssA is highly related to a family of autonomously transported putative virulence factors from different Gram-negative pathogens, which includes the Tsh protein of an avian-pathogenic E. coli strain, the SepA protein from Shigella flexneri and the EspC protein from enteropathogenic E. coli. A common motif present in all four proteins is reminiscent of the catalytic centre of certain serine proteases. PssA (protease secreted by STEC) indeed shows serine protease activity in a casein-based assay and is moreover cytotoxic for Vero cells. This activity of PssA and probably of other proteins of the Tsh family may be of functional importance during infection of the mucosal cell layer by the bacterial pathogen.