Matrix metalloproteinases (MMP) have specific spatial and temporal expression patterns in human endometrium and are critical for menstruation. Expression and activation mechanisms for proMMP-2 differ from other MMPs; in many cells proMMP-2 is specifically activated by membrane-type (MT)-MMPs. We examined the expression and localization of proMMP-2, MT1-MMP, and MT2-MMP in human endometrium across the menstrual cycle; and we examined the expression of MT1-MMP and activation of proMMP-2 in cultured endometrial stromal cells and their regulation by progesterone. MMP-2 was immunolocalized in 25 of 32 endometrial samples in all cellular compartments but with greatest intensity in degrading menstrual tissue. MT1-MMP mRNA was present throughout the cycle, and immunoreactive protein was detected in 24 of 32 samples, with the strongest staining in subsets of macrophages, neutrophils, and granular lymphocytes (but not mast cells or eosinophils) during the menstrual, mid- proliferative and mid-secretory phases. Patchy epithelial staining and staining of decidual cells, often periglandular in menstrual tissue, were also seen. MT2-MMP was more widespread than MT1-MMP without apparent cyclical variation and with maximal intensity in glandular epithelium. Cultured endometrial stromal cells released proMMP-2, and progesterone treatment significantly reduced the percentage level of its active (62 kDa) form (22.5 ± 1.8% vs. 3.0 ± 1.3%, without and with treatment, respectively, mean ± SEM, P < 0.0001). This activation was blocked by a specific MMP inhibitor and restored following inhibitor removal. Progesterone also attenuated cell expression of MT1-MMP mRNA. We postulate that MT1-MMP activates proMMP-2 in endometrium, this activity being increased at the end of the cycle when progesterone levels fall, thus contributing to menstruation.