Rat brain cortical cells in primary culture were used to investigate long-term effects of opiates on endopeptidases acting on dynorphin peptides. Enzyme activity in the soluble fraction of the cells converted dynorphin B to Leu-enkephalin-Arg6 and to a lesser extent to Leu-enkephalin. Five day treatment with 10 microM morphine increased the conversion to Leu-enkephalin-Arg6 by 370%. This effect was prevented by the presence of naloxone in the culture medium. The opiate-inducible activity was directed to the Arg-Arg bond in dynorphins with preference for dynorphin B > alpha-neoendorphin > > dynorphin A. The Km for the generation of Leu-enkephalin-Arg6 from dynorphin B was 40 microM. Enzyme activity was inhibited by dynorphin fragments, in the following order of potency: dynorphin A(1-13) > A(2-13) > A(1-17) > A(2-17) and by SH-reagents, suggesting the presence of a cysteine-protease. The opiate-stimulated dynorphin-converting enzyme (DCE)-activity affects the balance between dynorphin peptides (selective for kappa-opioid receptors) and enkephalin peptides (selective for delta-opioid receptors). Since both types of opioid peptides can influence the development of opiate tolerance, the change in the extent of this transformation may be functionally important.