The substrate specificity and direct catalytic activity of plasminogen activator (PA) was examined under conditions where its natural substrate, plasminogen, was missing or inhibited. PA, purified from cultures of transformed chicken fibroblasts, was incubated with purified preparations of potential substrates. The adhesive glycoprotein fibronectin, isolated from normal chicken fibroblast extracellular matrix, underwent limited but specific cleavage by PA in the absence of plasminogen. Analysis of the cleavage products by polyacrylamide gels under both reducing and nonreducing conditions indicated that PA-mediated cleavage occurred near the carboxyl terminus of fibronectin but on the amino-terminal side of the interchain disulfide bridge, thus disrupting the native dimeric fibronectin molecule. Under the identical conditions, chicken ovalbumin was not cleaved while the established substrate, chicken plasminogen, was extensively converted to plasmin. A monoclonal antibody, directed against avian PA and shown to inhibit plasminogen-free, cell-mediated matrix degradation, specifically inhibited the fibronectin cleavage. A human PA, urokinase, also cleaved fibronectin under plasminogen-free conditions yielding a limited number of high molecular weight cleavage products.