Hyaluronate lyase is one of several proteins secreted by group B streptococci which are believed to contribute to strain virulence. Characterization of the purified enzyme revealed that it degrades hyaluronan by a mechanism different from that of other previously studied hyaluronidases. Instead of randomly cleaving hyaluronan chains leading to a continuous decrease in average chain size, the group B streptococcal enzyme initially yields primarily unsaturated disaccharides. The observation that most of the free reducing ends generated during group B streptococcal hyaluronate lyase digestion are present in the unsaturated disaccharide units supports the conclusion that they are released primarily from the ends of the hyaluronan chains. Furthermore, the experimental evidence is consistent with a mode of action by which the enzyme initially makes a random cut in a hyaluronan chain and then processively moves along the chain releasing disaccharide units. Group B streptococcal hyaluronate lyase also slowly degrades chondroitin sulfate, and its desulfation greatly increases the reaction rate. A preferential cleavage of unsulfated residues is consistent with the observed extensive release of free chondroitin sulfate chains following very limited digestion of aggrecan from bovine nasal cartilage. © 1994 Academic Press, Inc.