The matrix metalloproteinase 92-kDa gelatinase is a major product of inflammatory cells. Macrophages synthesize and secrete this proteinase as a proenzyme in association with tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases (TIMP) (92(TIMP)), whereas neutrophils store and release it from secondary granules as a TIMP-free proenzyme (92(TIMP-free)). Metalloproteinase proenzymes can be activated in vitro by a variety of agents, including organomercurials and proteinases, resulting in loss of an 8-10-kDa NH2-terminal domain which disrupts the interaction of a conserved cysteine residue with the catalytic zinc molecule. We report that the activation and processing of 92-kDa gelatinase differs depending on its association with TIMP and the nature of the activating agent. We observed that 92(TIMP) undergoes classic activation to 82 kDa by stromelysin, whereas exposure to 4-aminophenylmercuric acetate (APMA) results in a final product of 83 kDa that still contains the 'prodomain' cysteine. Association with TIMP appears to stabilize the COOH- terminal domain, whereas 92(TIMP-free) iS converted by APMA to a final product of 67 kDa lacking the COOH-terminal portion. In the continued presence of APMA, which maintains cysteine-zinc disruption, the 67-kDa species is at least as active as the classic 82 kDa. In contrast, activation of 92(TIMP-free) by stromelysin initially generates the 82-kDa form which is followed by final conversion to a 50-kDa species that lacks the catalytic domain of the parent molecule. Therefore, although stromelysin activation of 92(TIMP-free) is initially efficient, the active 82-kDa form is short-lived and is replaced by an inactive 50-kDa product. This complex pattern of activation of the 92-kDa gelatinase may serve to restrict its proteolytic capacity following exposure to stromelysin and may serve to regulate proteinase activity in vivo.