In contrast to mammalian urokinase-type plasminogen activator (uPA), which is produced and maintained in zymogen form, avian uPA is found in the active two-chain form in cultures of normal and transformed chicken cells in the absence of plasmin, the putative natural activator of pro-uPA. Recombinant chicken uPA (ch-uPAwt) synthesized in two distinct expression systems also presents in the active two-chain form. In addition, conversion to the active uPA in both natural and recombinant expression systems could be prevented by uPA-specific inhibitors including a monoclonal antibody that uniquely inhibits the catalytic activity of ch-uPA. Most significantly, an active site mutant of avian uPA (ch-uPAS353A) that lacks catalytic activity is produced and maintained in single-chain form. Furthermore, the single-chain ch-uPAS353A mutant can be converted to the two-chain form by purified active ch-uPAwt. These results strongly indicate an autocatalytic mechanism of activation of ch-uPA. Autoactivation appears to be an intrinsic property of ch-uPA and may be the initiating molecular event in uPA-mediated proteolytic cascades.