Trypanosoma cruzi, the etiological agent of Chagas' disease, expresses a trans-sialidase at highest levels in infective trypomastigotes, where it attaches to the plasma membrane by a glycophosphoinositol linkage. Bound enzyme sheds into the extracellular milieu in a soluble form. Experiments performed in vitro suggest that the trans-sialidase participates in several parameters of T. cruzi-host interactions, like cell adhesion and complement resistance. However, the role that membrane-bound and soluble trans-sialidase plays in the infection of mammals is not understood. To begin to study the role the enzyme may play in vivo, T. cruzi trypomastigotes were inoculated subcutaneously into mice that had been sensitized for various times with the purified protein. A single dose of either endogenous or recombinant trans-sialidase injected into the connective tissues of BALB/c mice greatly enhanced parasitemia and mortality. Maximum enhancement was achieved with 1-2-h priming. Injection of the enzyme after the parasites had been established in the inoculation site had little, if any, consequence in modifying virulence. The enhancement did not seem to be through a direct effect of the enzyme on trypomastigote-host cell interactions because it occurred when the sites of trans-sialidase sensitization and parasite inoculation were physically separate. Rather, virulence enhancement seemed to depend on inflammatory cells, since priming with trans-sialidase had no significant effect in severe combined immunodeficiency mice, which lack functional T and B lymphocytes. However, antibody response to T. cruzi in the trans-sialidase-primed BALB/c mice was the same as in the control animals. Virulence enhancement was specific for the trans-sialidase because it did not occur in mice primed with Newcastle virus sialidase, which has the same substrate specificity as the T. cruzi enzyme, or with the sialidase from the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, whose substrate specificity is broader than the trypanosome sialidase. Furthermore, no enhancement of virulence occurred after sensitization with another adhesion protein (penetrin) purified from T. cruzi trypomastigotes and engineered bacteria, nor with bacterial lipopolysaccharide. The virulence-promoting activity of soluble trans-sialidase in the mouse model may be physiologically relevant because it was achieved with tiny doses, approximately 1-2 microgram/kg, raising the possibility that neutralization of the enzyme with specific probes could impair the development of Chagas' disease. In fact, a monoclonal antibody specific for the tandem repeat in the trans-sialidase COOH terminus enhanced infection of BALB/c mice, in agreement with earlier experiments in vitro, whereas antibodies against an amino acid sequence in the Cys region had the opposite effect.