The collagen substrate specificity of rat uterus collagenase was studied as a function of both collagen type and species of substrate origin. For each collagen examined, values for the basic kinetic parameters, Km and Vmax (kcat), were determined on collagen in solution at 25 degrees C. In all cases, Lineweaver-Burk plots were linear and rat uterus collagenase behaved as a normal Michaelis-Menten enzyme. Collagen types I, II, and III of all species tested were degraded by rat uterus collagenase. Collagen types IV and V were resistant to enzymatic attack. Both enzyme-substrate affinity and catalytic rates were very similar for all susceptible collagens (types I-III). Values for Km ranged from 0.9 to 2.5 X 10(-6) M. Values for kcat varied from 10.7 to 28.1 h-1. The homologous rat type I collagen was no better a substrate than the other animal species type I collagens. The ability of rat uterus collagenase to degrade collagen types I, II, and III with essentially the same catalytic efficiency is unlike the action of human skin fibroblast collagenase or any other interstitial collagenase reported to date. The action of rat uterus collagenase on type I collagen was compared to that of human skin fibroblast collagenase, with regard to their capacity to cleave collagen as solution monomers versus insoluble fibrils. Both enzymes had essentially equal values for kcat on monomeric collagen, yet the specific activity of the rat uterus collagenase was 3- to 6-fold greater on collagen fibrils than the skin fibroblast enzyme. Thus, in spite of their similar activity on collagen monomers in solution, the rat uterus collagenase can degrade collagen aggregated into fibrils considerably more readily than can human skin fibroblast collagenase.