The abilities of isolates of saprophytes (Neurospora crassa, Aspergillus nidulans), an opportunistic human pathogen (Aspergillus fumigatus), an opportunistic insect pathogen (Aspergillus flavus), plant pathogens (Verticillium albo-atrum, Verticillium dahliae, Nectria haematococca), a mushroom pathogen (Verticillium fungicola) and entomopathogens (Verticillium lecanii, Beauveria bassiana, Metarhizium anisopliae) to utilize plant cell walls and insect cuticle components in different nutrient media were compared. The pathogens showed enzymic adaptation to the polymers present in the integuments of their particular hosts. Thus, the plant pathogens produced high levels of enzymes capable of degrading pectic polysaccharides, cellulose and xylan, as well as cutinase substrate, but secreted little or no chitinase and showed no proteolytic activity against elastin and mucin. The entomopathogens and V. fungicola degraded a broad spectrum of proteins (including elastin and mucin) but, except for chitinase, cellulase (V. lecanii and V. fungicola only) and cutinase (B. bassiana only), produced very low levels of polysaccharidases. The saprophytes (Neu. crassa and A. nidulans) and the opportunistic pathogens (A. fumigatus and A. flavus) produced the broadest spectrum of protein and polysaccharide degrading enzymes, indicative of their less specialized nutritional status. V. lecanii and V. albo-atrum were compared in more detail to identity factors that distinguish plant and insect pathogens. V. albo-atrum, but not V. lecanii, grew well on different plant cell wall components. The major class of proteases produced in different media by isolates of V. albo-atrum and V. dahliae were broad spectrum basic (pI > 10) trypsins which degrade Z-AA-AA-Arg-NA substrates (Z, benzoyl; AA, various amino acids; Na, nitroanilide), hide protein azure and insect (Manduca sexta) cuticles. Analogous peptidases were produced by isolates of V. lecanii and V. fungicola but they were specific for Z-Phe-Val-Arg-NA. V. albo-atrum and V. dahliae also produced low levels of neutral (pI ca 7) and basic (pI ca 9.5) subtilisin-like proteases active against a chymotrypsin substrate (Succinyl-Ala2-Pro-Phe-NA) and insect cuticle. In contrast, subtilisins comprised the major protease component secreted by V. lecanii and V. fungicola. Both V. lecanii and V. albo-atrum produced the highest levels of subtilisin and trypsin-like activities during growth on collagen or insect cuticle. Results are discussed in terms of the adaptation of fungi to the requirements of their ecological niches.