Specific proteolysis by the tetanus toxin light chain of a vesicle-associated membrane protein (VAMP) involved in exocytosis is thought to underlie its intracellular blockade of neurotransmitter release. To substantiate this mechanism, recombinant light chain was expressed as a maltose binding protein-light chain fusion product in Escherichia coli. After purification by affinity chromatography and cleavage with factor Xa, the resultant light chain was isolated and its identity confirmed by Western blotting and N-terminal sequencing. It exhibited activity similar to that of the native light chain in proteolyzing its target in isolated bovine small synaptic vesicles and in hydrolyzing a 62-residue synthetic polypeptide spanning the cleavage site of the substrate. The importance of Glu234 in the catalytic activity of the light chain, possibly analogous to Glu143 of thermolysin, was examined using site-directed mutagenesis. Changing Glu234 to Ala abolished the protease activity of the light chain, but its ability to bind the polypeptide substrate was retained. Each recombinant light chain could be reconstituted with the heavy chain of tetanus toxin, yielding the same level of disulfide-linked species as the two native chains. Whereas the toxin formed with wild-type light chain exhibited appreciable neuromuscular paralysis activity and mouse lethality, the equivalent dichain material containing the Ala234 mutant lacked neurotoxicity in both the in vitro and in vivo assays. Thus, these results demonstrate directly, for the first time, that the lethality of tetanus toxin and its inhibition of exocytosis in intact neurons are attributable largely, if not exclusively, to endoprotease activity.