Human glandular kallikrein 2 (hK2) is a serine protease expressed by the prostate gland with 80% identity in primary structure to prostate-specific antigen (PSA). Recently, hK2 was shown to activate the zymogen form of PSA (proPSA) in vitro and is likely to be the physiological activator of PSA in the prostate. hK2 is also able to activate urokinase and effectively cleave fibronectin. We studied the substrate specificity of hK2 and regulation of its activity by zinc and extracellular protease inhibitors present in the prostate and seminal plasma. The enzymatic activity and substrate specificity was studied by determining hK2 cleavage sites in the major gel proteins in semen, semenogelin I and II, and by measuring hydrolysis of various tripeptide aminomethylcoumarin substrates. HK2 cleaves substrates C-terminal of single or double arginines. Basic amino acids were also occasionally found at several other positions N-terminal of the cleavage site. Therefore, the substrate specificity of hK2 fits in well with that of a processor of protein precursors. Possible regulation mechanisms were studied by testing the ability of Zn2+ and different protease inhibitors to inhibit hK2 by kinetic measurements. Inhibitory constants were determined for the most effective inhibitors PCI and Zn2+. The high affinity of PCI for hK2 (kass = 2.0 x 10(5) M-1 x s-1) and the high concentrations of PCI (4 microM) and hK2 (0.2 microM) in seminal plasma make hK2 a very likely physiological target protease for PCI. hK2 is inhibited by Zn2+ at micromolar concentrations well below the 9 mM zinc concentration found in the prostate. The enzymatic activity of hK2 is likely to be reversibly regulated by Zn2+ in prostatic fluid. This regulation may be impaired in CAP and advanced metastatic cancer resulting in lack of control of the hK2 activity and a need for other means of control.