We have investigated the ability of neutral and lysosomal enzymes of mouse macrophages to degrade the insoluble extracellular matrices secreted by smooth muscle cells, endothelial cells, and fibroblasts. Matrices produced by smooth muscle cells contained glycoproteins, elastin, and collagens, but matrices of endothelial cells and fibroblasts contained no elastin. Sequential enzyme digestion of residual matrix revealed that plasmin, a product of macrophage plasminogen activation, degraded 50-70% of the glycoprotein in the matrices but did not degrade the elastin or the collagens. Purified macrophage elastase degraded glycoprotein and elastin components but had no effect on the collagens. The rate of elastin degradation by macrophage elastase was decreased in the presence of the glycoproteins. In contrast, human granulocyte elastase effectively degraded the matrix glycoproteins, elastin, and, to a lesser extent, collagens, Mammalian collagenase degraded only collagens. Conditioned medium from resident and inflammatory macrophages, containing mixtures of the secreted proteinases, degraded the glycoprotein and elastin components of the matrices. However, conditioned medium was less effective in degrading matrix than comparable amounts of purified macrophage elastase because > 90% of the elastase in the medium was in a latent form. Inclusion of plasminogen in the assays accelerated degradation. In the presence of plasminogen, glycoproteins were degraded readily by medium from P388D1, pyran copolymer-, thioglycollate-, and periodate-elicited macrophages and, to a lesser extent, by medium from endotoxin-elicited and resident macrophages; medium from P388D1, thioglycollate-, and periodate-elicited macrophages was most effective in elastin degradation, and resident, endotoxin-elicited and pyran copolymer-elicited macrophages degraded almost no elastin. The macrophage cathepsins D and B degraded all the matrix components at an optimum pH of 5.5 and acted with the secreted neutral proteinases to degrade the connective tissue macromolecules to amino acids and oligopeptides. These data indicate that macrophages at inflammatory sites contain and secrete proteolytic enzymes that could degrade the extracellular matrix.