Renibacterium salmoninarum is a pathogen of salmonid fish that produces large amounts of extracellular protein (ECP) during growth. A proteolytic activity present in ECP at elevated temperatures digested the majority of the proteins in ECP. This digestion was also associated with the loss of ECP immunosuppressive function. In vitro activity of the proteinase in ECP was temperature dependent: it was not detected in an 18-h digest at 4 and 17 degrees C but became readily apparent at 37 degrees C. Proteinase activity was detected at bacterial physiological temperatures (17 degrees C) in reactions incubated for several days. Under these conditions, digestion of partially purified p57, a major constituent of ECP and a major cell-surface protein, yielded a spectrum of breakdown products similar in molecular weight and antigenicity to those in ECP. This pattern of digestion suggests that most of the immunologically related constituents of ECP are p57 and its breakdown products. The proteolytic activity was sensitive to phenylmethylsulfonyl fluoride, methanol, and ethanol and to 10-min incubation at temperatures above 65 degrees C. Electrophoretic analysis of the proteinase on polyacrylamide gels containing proteinase substrates indicated the native form to be 100 kDa or greater. The enzyme was active against selected unrelated substrates only when coincubated with a denaturant (0.1% lauryl sulfate) and (or) a reducing agent (20 mM dithiothreitol).