Rhodospirillum rubrum possesses a putative intracellular poly(3-hydroxybutyrate) (PHB) depolymerase system consisting of a soluble PHB depolymerase, a heat-stable activator, and a 3-hydroxybutyrate dimer hydrolase (J. M. Merrick and M. Doudoroff, J. Bacteriol. 88:60-71, 1964). In this study we reinvestigated the soluble R. rubrum PHB depolymerase (PhaZ1). It turned out that PhaZ1 is a novel type of PHB depolymerase with unique properties. Purified PhaZ1 was specific for amorphous short-chain-length polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) such as native PHB, artificial PHB, and oligomer esters of (R)-3-hydroxybutyrate with 3 or more 3-hydroxybutyrate units. Atactic PHB, (S)-3-hydroxybutyrate oligomers, medium-chain-length PHA, and lipase substrates (triolein, tributyrin) were not hydrolyzed. The PHB depolymerase structural gene (phaZ1) was cloned. Its deduced amino acid sequence (37,704 Da) had no significant similarity to those of intracellular PHB depolymerases of Wautersia eutropha or of other PHB-accumulating bacteria. PhaZ1 was found to have strong amino acid homology with type-II catalytic domains of extracellular PHB depolymerases, and Ser42, Asp138, and His178 were identified as catalytic-triad amino acids, with Ser42 as the putative active site. Surprisingly, the first 23 amino acids of the PHB depolymerase previously assumed to be intracellular revealed features of classical signal peptides, and Edman sequencing of purified PhaZ1 confirmed the functionality of the predicted cleavage site. Extracellular PHB depolymerase activity was absent, and analysis of cell fractions unequivocally showed that PhaZ1 is a periplasm-located enzyme. The previously assumed intracellular activator/depolymerase system is unlikely to have a physiological function in PHB mobilization in vivo. A second gene, encoding the putative true intracellular PHB depolymerase (PhaZ2), was identified in the genome sequence of R. rubrum.