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Trichomonas vaginalis, the causal agent of trichomonosis, is a flagellated parasitic protozoan that colonises the epithelial cells of the human urogenital tract. The ability of T vaginalis to colonise this site is in part a function of its ability to circumvent a series of non-specific host defences including the mucous layer covering epithelial cells at the site of infection. Mucin, the framework molecule of mucus, forms a lattice structure that serves as a formidable physical barrier to microbial invasion. The mechanism by which trichomonads traverse the mucous covering is unknown. Proteolytic degradation of mucin, however, may provide for a mechanism to penetrate this layer. The goal, therefore, was to determine how trichomonads cross through a mucous layer.Secreted trichomonad proteinases were analysed for mucinase activity by mucin substrate-sodium dodecyl sulphate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis. The importance of trichomonad mucinases for traversing the mucous layer was examined on an artificial mucin layer in invasion chambers. Adherence to mucin and tissue culture cells was measured using a microtitre plate assay.Trichomonad isolate 24402 secreted five proteinases when incubated in PBS. All five proteinases were shown to possess mucinase activity. These mucinases were able to degrade bovine submaxillary mucin and to a lesser extent porcine stomach mucin. These enzymes were active over a pH range of 4.5-7.0 and were inhibited with cysteine proteinase inhibitors. Furthermore, T vaginalis was shown to bind to mucin possibly via a lectin-like adhesin. Adherence to mucin was increased threefold when parasites were grown in iron deficient medium. Adherence to soluble mucin prevented attachment to HeLa cells. Proteinase activity, adherence, and motility were required for trichomonads to traverse a mucin layer in vitro.These results show that trichomonads can traverse the mucous barrier first by binding mucin followed by its proteolytic degradation. The data further underscore the importance of trichomonad proteinases in the pathogenesis of trichomonosis. Finally, this study suggests that interference with trichomonad mucin receptors and proteinases may be a strategy to prevent colonisation by this parasite.