The tumor promoter phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) induces the production of the serine protease plasminogen activator (PA) in cultures of normal chick embryo fibroblasts (CEF) and synergistically enhances PA production in Rous sarcoma virus-transformed chick embryo fibroblasts (RSVCEF). Following PMA treatment of serum-free RSVCEF cultures, PA induction is accompanied by distinct morphological changes, including enhanced cell clustering and the formation of dense cellular aggregates. These alterations in the morphology of the PMA-treated transformed cells are inhibited by several protease inhibitors, including leupeptin, NPGB, SBTI, benzamidine and DFP, the specific inhibitor of serine enzymes. A number of protease inhibitors are ineffective in preventing the PMA-induced morphological changes; these include inhibitors of trypsin, chymotrypsin, elastase, thrombin and, most importantly, plasmin. The use of a fluorescent substrate to assay PA directly demonstrated that the pattern of inhibiton of PA activity correlates exactly with the inhibition of morphological changes. The of 3H-DFP to label and characterize serine zymes in the culture fluid from PMA-treated cells further indicated that PA is the serine protease responsible for the morphological changes. Thus PA itself can catalytically alter cellular behavior in culture independent of plasminogen, until not its only known natural substrate.