Leucocyte (L)-selectin can be proteolytically cleaved in the membrane proximal extracellular region to yield a soluble fragment that contains the functional lectin and epidermal growth factor domains. A variety of stimuli are known to stimulate L-selectin shedding including chemoattractants, phorbol esters, and L-selectin cross-linking; however, the enzymes that regulate L-selectin expression are not characterized. In this study we have used phorbol ester to stimulate endoproteolytic release of L-selectin and identified a major role for a cell surface metalloproteinase (L-selectin sheddase) in this process. The hydroxamic acid-based inhibitor of zinc-dependent matrix metalloproteinases Ro 31-9790 completely prevented shedding of cell surface L-selectin from leucocytes in mouse, rat, and man. L-selectin was susceptible to cleavage by known matrix metalloproteinases. Recombinant human fibroblast collagenase (MMP1) reduced the number of L-selectin-positive lymphocytes to a similar extent as phorbol ester activation, and stromelysin (MMP3) had a partial effect on L-selectin expression. Gelatinases A (MMP2) and B (MMP9) were without effect. Lymphocytes did not express fibroblast collagenase or stromelysin at the cell surface, and tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases (TIMP) did not affect L-selectin levels. L-selectin sheddase was not detected in media harvested from phorbol ester-stimulated lymphocytes and was only able to cleave L-selectin in the cis but not the trans configuration. These results suggest that endoproteolytic release of L-selectin from the leucocyte surface is mediated by a metalloproteinase (L-selectin sheddase), which is distinguishable from known matrix metalloproteinases. Understanding the regulation of L-selectin sheddase will be critical for controlling leucocyte migration from the blood.