It is known that apolactoferrin, the iron-free form of human lactoferrin, can kill many species of bacteria, including Streptococcus pneumoniae. Lactoferricin, an N-terminal peptide of apolactoferrin, and fragments of it are even more bactericidal than apolactoferrin. In this study we found that apolactoferrin must be cleaved by a serine protease in order for it to kill pneumococci. The serine protease inhibitors were able to block killing by apolactoferrin but did not block killing by a lactoferrin-derived peptide. Thus, the killing of pneumococci by apolactoferrin appears to require a protease to release a lactoferricin-like peptide(s). Incubation of apolactoferrin with growing pneumococci resulted in a 12-kDa reduction in its molecular mass, of which about 7 to 8 kDa of the reduction was protease dependent. Capsular type 2 and 19F strains with mutations in the gene encoding the major cell wall-associated serine protease, prtA, lost much of their ability to degrade apolactoferrin and were relatively resistant to killing by apolactoferrin (P < 0.001). Recombinant PrtA was also able to cleave apolactoferrin, reducing its mass by about 8 kDa, and greatly enhance the killing activity of the solution containing the apolactoferrin and its cleavage products. Mass spectroscopy revealed that PrtA makes a major cut between amino acids 78 and 79 of human lactoferrin, removing the N-terminal end of the molecule (about 8.6 kDa). The simplest interpretation of these data is that the mechanism by which apolactoferrin kills Streptococcus pneumoniae requires the release of a lactoferricin-like peptide(s) and that it is this peptide(s), and not the intact apolactoferrin, which kills pneumococci. © 2011, American Society for Microbiology.