A peptidase that inactivated neurotensin by cleaving the peptide at the Pro10-Tyr11 bond, generating the biologically inactive fragments neurotensin(1-10) and neurotensin(11-13) was purified from whole rat ileum homogenate. The purified enzyme behaved as a 70-75-kDa monomer as determined by SDS-PAGE analysis in reducing or non-reducing conditions and gel permeation on Ultrogel AcA34. The peptidase was insensitive to thiol-blocking agents and acidic and serine protease inhibitors but could be strongly inhibited by 1,10-phenanthroline, EDTA, dithiothreitol and heavy metal ions such as zinc, copper and cobalt. Zinc was the only divalent cation able potently to reactivate the apoenzyme. This enzyme could be distinguished from endopeptidases EC 22.214.171.124 and EC 126.96.36.199, angiotensin-converting enzyme, proline endopeptidase, aminopeptidase and pyroglutamyl-peptide hydrolase since it was not affected by micromolar concentrations of their specific inhibitors. The peptidase displayed a high affinity for neurotensin (1.6 microM). Studies concerning the specificity of the enzyme towards the sequence of neurotensin established the following. (a) Neurotensin(9-13) was the shortest partial sequence that fully inhibited tritiated neurotensin degradation; shortening the C-terminal part of the neurotensin molecule led to inactive fragments. (b) Amidation of the C-terminal end of the peptide did not prevent the recognition by the peptidase. (c) There existed a strong stereospecificity of the peptidase for the residues in positions 8, 9 and 11 of the neurotensin molecule. (d) Pro-Xaa dipeptides (where Xaa represented aromatic or hydrophobic residues) were the most potent inhibitors of tritiated neurotensin degradation while all the Xaa-Pro dipeptides tested were totally ineffective. (e) The neurotensin-related peptides: neuromedin N, xenopsin and [Lys8-Asn9]neurotensin(8-13), as well as angiotensins I and II and dynorphins(1-8) and (1-13) were as potent as neurotensin in inhibiting [3H]neurotensin hydrolysis.