Synechococci are important primary producers in the ocean and can also utilize some components of the dissolved organic matter (DOM). The readily utilizable DOM in seawater is mainly polymeric (e.g., protein, polysaccharide) or phosphorylated and requires hydrolysis prior to uptake. We examined whether synechococci express ectoenzymes to hydrolyze DOM components and considered the possible significance of ectohydrolases for Synechococcus ecology and organic matter cycling in the sea. Five strains of non-nitrogen-fixing synechococci in axenic cultures were tested for enzyme activities with fluorogenic substrates. All strains show ectocellular aminopeptidase activity, but other enzymes were undetectable. The aminopeptidase level was in the range determined for five marine heterotrophic bacterial isolates tested for comparison. Aminopeptidase was not secreted into the medium; the majority (74%; tested in WH 7803) was cell surface bound, and a small fraction was periplasmic. The periplasmic activity was not released by cold osmotic shock of WH 7803. Phenylmethylsulfonyl fluoride and EDTA, inhibitors of serine and metalloproteases, strongly or completely inhibited WH 7803 aminopeptidase. The enzyme seemed constitutive; per-cell activity did not change during incubations in unenriched seawater, bovine serum albumin, or nitrate-replete mineral medium. In natural planktonic assemblages in the Southern California Bight, aminopeptidase activity was correlated with Synechococcus abundance as well as the abundance of other bacteria. Ectocellular aminopeptidase may be common in marine synechococci and play roles in their nitrogen nutrition, particularly in low-nitrate and low-light environments. Since synechococci are much less abundant than heterotrophic bacteria in seawater, the impact of Synechococcus aminopeptidase on proteolysis in the sea is likely to be episodic and restricted to specialized microenvironments.