Amino acid auxotrophous bacteria such as Lactococcus lactis use proteins as a source of amino acids. For this process, they possess a complex proteolytic system to degrade the protein(s) and to transport the degradation products into the cell. We have been able to dissect the various steps of the pathway by deleting one or more genes encoding key enzymes/components of the system and using mass spectrometry to analyse the complex peptide mixtures. This approach revealed in detail how L. lactis liberates the required amino acids from β-casein, the major component of the lactococcal diet. Mutants containing the extracellular proteinase PrtP, but lacking the oligopeptide transport system Opp and the autolysin AcmA, were used to determine the proteinase specificity in vivo. To identify the substrates of Opp present in the casein hydrolysate, the PrtP-generated peptide pool was offered to mutants lacking the proteinase, but containing Opp, and the disappearance of peptides from the medium as well as the intracellular accumulation of amino acids and peptides was monitored in peptidase-proficient and fivefold peptidase-deficient genetic backgrounds. The results are unambiguous and firmly establish that (i) the carboxyl-terminal end of β-casein is degraded preferentially despite the broad specificity of the proteinase; (ii) peptides smaller than five residues are not formed in vivo; (iii) use of oligopeptides of 5-10 residues becomes only possible after uptake via Opp; (iv) only a few (10-14) of the peptides generated by PrtP are actually used, even though the system facilitates the transport of oligopeptides up to at least 10 residues. The technology described here allows us to monitor the fate of individual peptides in complex mixtures and is applicable to other proteolytic systems.