Because proteases free in the body are damaging to the tissues, animals have evolved various agents for their inactivation and clearance. Mammals, for instance, have a diverse array of active site protease inhibitors in the plasma. In addition, mammals have alpha 2-macroglobulin (alpha 2M), which binds active proteases, and the alpha 2M-protease complex is then cleared from the plasma by a receptor-mediated endocytotic process. alpha 2M is also present in the plasma of many invertebrates, and in the American horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, it is the only protease inhibitor in the plasma. To search for a clearance process for proteases in Limulus, fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC)-labeled proteins were injected into the blood, and the fluorescence in the plasma and associated with the blood cells was determined. FITC-labeled trypsin was cleared with an initial mixing period (0-10 min) and a rapid clearance period (10-30 min), followed by the reappearance of FITC in the plasma (45-90 min). Before and during the clearance process, the labeled trypsin was associated with a complex having a molecular mass identical to that of Limulus alpha 2M, and that was precipitated by antibodies directed against Limulus alpha 2M. The fluoresceinated material that reappeared in the plasma after 45 min was of low molecular mass (< 10 kDa) and thus appears to have experienced degradation. The clearance of trypsin requires its protease activity, since phenylmethylsulfonyl fluoride-inactivated, FITC-labeled trypsin was cleared only very slowly if at all (t1/2 > 180 min). FITC-labeled, trypsin-reacted Limulus alpha 2M was cleared rapidly from the plasma of Limulus, whereas FITC-labeled, native Limulus alpha 2M persisted undiminished in excess of 400 min. The blood cells of Limulus bound FITC-labeled trypsin-reacted Limulus alpha 2M, and the peak of recovery from the blood cells coincided with the minimum concentration of FITC-labeled protein in the plasma, suggesting that the blood cells participate in the clearance of alpha 2M-protease complex from the plasma. Thus, we have demonstrated the existence of a clearance pathway in Limulus that operates selectively on enzymatically active proteases and have shown that Limulus alpha 2M is the probable agent for protease clearance. This is the first documentation of a protease clearance pathway in invertebrates and represents the first identified physicological function for alpha 2M in invertebrates.