A staining reaction was developed to specifically detect arylsulfatase A activity in the presence of arylsulfatases B and C. Nitrocatechol, generated by all arylsulfatases from the substrate p-nitrocatechol sulfate, can be coupled to produce Hatchett 's brown which reacts with 3,3'-diaminobenzidine to yield an osmiophilic polymer visible under the electron microscope. The reaction was made specific for arylsulfatase A by inhibiting arylsulfatase C activity with low pH and arylsulfatase B activity with pyrophosphate. The specificity was confirmed both by electrophoretic analysis and by patient fibroblasts deficient only in arylsulfatase A activity. Under optimal conditions for preserving structural integrity and enzyme activity, enzyme reaction deposits were found mainly around vesicles. Some of these vesicles were large and heterogeneous (48-330 nm in diameter), distributed randomly within the cytoplasm, but most of the positive-reacting vesicles were uniform in size (86 +/- 18 nm in diameter) and distributed in a peripheral zone about 0.1-0.5 micron wide. These periplasmic vesicles might be partly fused with each other or with the plasma membrane. In conclusion, a specific stain for arylsulfatase A activity suitable for light and electron microscopy and the optimal conditions for structural and enzymatic preservations were developed. Although this enzyme has been considered to be lysosomal in origin, most of the activity was detected in periplasmic vesicles near the cell surface.