Fluoride is associated with a decrease in the incidence of dental caries, but excessive fluoride intake during tooth enamel formation can result in enamel fluorosis. Fluorosed enamel has increased porosity, which has been related to a delay in the removal of amelogenin proteins as the enamel matures. This delay in protein removal suggests that fluoride may affect either the amount or the activity of enamel matrix proteinases. In this study, we investigated the role of fluoride in the synthesis and secretion of matrix metalloproteinase-20 (MMP-20), the proteinase primarily responsible for the initial hydrolysis of amelogenin during the secretory stage of enamel formation. Cultured human fetus tooth organ ameloblast-lineage cells were exposed to 10 microM fluoride and analyzed for synthesis of MMP-20. Immunoblotting showed that 10 microM NaF down-regulated the synthesis of MMP-20 by 21% compared with control cells, but did not alter the amount of amelogenin or kalikrein-4 (KLK-4) synthesized by the cells. Real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) showed that 10 microM NaF down-regulated MMP-20 mRNA expression to 28% of the levels found in the non-treated cells. These in vitro results suggest that fluoride can alter the expression of MMP-20 by ameloblasts, resulting in a disturbance of the balance between MMP-20 and its substrate that may contribute to the retention of amelogenins in the formation of fluorosed enamel.