We compared the products of autolytic amidase-catalyzed wall degradation in vivo (in penicillin-induced lysis) and in vitro. Pneumococci labeled in their cell wall stem peptides by radioactive lysine were treated with penicillin, and the nature of wall degradation products released to the medium during lysis of the bacteria was determined. At early times of lysis (20% loss of wall label), virtually all the radioactive peptides released (greater than 94%) were of high molecular size and were still attached to glycan and teichoic acid. At times of more extensive bacterial lysis (56%), progressively larger and larger fractions of the released peptides became free, i.e., detached from glycan and teichoic acid. Analysis of the nondegraded residual wall material by high-resolution high-pressure liquid chromatography revealed that this in vivo-triggered autolysis did not involve selective hydrolysis of some of the chemically distinct stem peptides. Parallel in vitro experiments yielded completely different results. Purified pneumococcal cell walls labeled with radioactive lysine were treated in vitro with low concentrations of pure amidase, and the nature of wall degradation products released during limited hydrolysis and after more extensive degradation was determined. In sharp contrast to the in vivo experiments, the main products of in vitro hydrolysis were free peptides. After a short treatment with amidase (resulting in a 20% loss of label), the material released was enriched for the monomeric stem peptides. At all times of hydrolysis (including the time of extensive degradation), only a relatively small fraction of the released wall peptides was covalently attached to glycan and teichoic acid components (17% as compared with 40% in the intact cell wall). We propose that the in vivo-triggered amidase activity first attacks the amide bonds in some strategically located (or unprotected) stem peptides that hold large segments of cell wall material together. The observations indicate that the in vivo activity of the pneumococcal autolysin is under topographic constraints.