Steinernema carpocapsae is an insect parasitic nematode able to parasitise and kill the host within 48 h. Secreted products (ESP) of the parasitic stage of a virulent strain contain higher amounts of proteolytic activity than a low virulence strain, suggesting proteases are involved in virulence. From the ESP we purified a protein (Sc-SP-3) with a M-r of 30 kDa and a pI of 7 that cleaved the synthetic substrate N-succinyl-Ala-Ala-Pro-Phe-pNA and was inhibited by phenylmethanesulfonyl fluoride, benzamidine and chymostatin, thus indicating that it belongs to the chymotrypsin-like serine protease family. Sc-SP-3 has a V-max of 0.3 mM min(-1) ml(-1) and K-m of 6.6 x 10(-4) M, with maximum activity at pH 8 and 40 degrees C. The full-length cDNA was obtained using degenerate oligonucleotides for serine proteases. This open reading frame encodes a preproprotein containing a putative signal peptide composed of 16 amino acid residues, a prodomain of 40 residues and a mature protease domain of 261 residues, including the catalytic triad His/Asp/Ser characteristic of trypsin-like serine proteases. The N-terminal sequence and the peptide masses fingerprint obtained by MALDI-TOF-MS for the purified protein matched the cDNA. Gene expression analysis by quantitative real-time-PCR showed that this gene is expressed only during the parasitic stage and that pre-invasive nematodes inside the mid-gut expressed higher amounts of Sc-SP-3 than those that already enter the haemocoel. Sc-SP-3 caused histolysis in the insect mid-gut. In vitro assays demonstrated that Sc-SP-3 digested extracellular proteins and induced apoptosis in Sf9 insect cells, thus suggesting Sc-SP-3 is a multifunctional chymotrypsin-like protease involved in pathogenesis.