Periodontal inflammation is characterized by irreversible degradation of periodontal ligament collagen fibers leading to loss of tooth attachment. Cultured gingival keratinocytes and fibroblasts express, in vitro, various matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) which can degrade fibrillar collagens. We hypothesized that several MMPs are also synthesized in vivo by sulcular epithelium, and analyzed the collagenolytic MMPs (MMP-2, -8, -13, and -14) and matrilysin (MMP-7) in gingival tissue specimens and gingival crevicular fluid from adult and localized juvenile periodontitis patients by in situ hybridization, immunohistochemistry, and Western immunoblotting. MMP-2, -7, -8, and -13 were expressed in gingival sulcular epithelium. MMP-7 and -13 were also located in fibroblasts and macrophages, and MMP-8 in neutrophils. MMP-8- and -13-positive cells/mm(2) were higher in periodontitis gingiva when compared with healthy control tissue (p < 0.01). In periodontal diseases, gingival sulcular epithelium expresses several, rather than a single, collagenolytic MMPs, and this proteolytic cascade is evidently responsible for the tissue destruction characteristic of adult and juvenile periodontitis.