Proteoglycans in cultures of adult bovine articular cartilage labeled with [35S]sulfate after 5 days in culture and maintained in medium containing 20% fetal calf X serum had longer half-lives (average 11 days) compared with those of the same tissue maintained in medium alone (average 6 days). The half-lives of proteoglycans in cultures of calf cartilage labeled after 5 days in culture and maintained in medium with serum were considerably longer (average 21 days) compared to adult cartilage. If 0.5 mM cycloheximide was added to the medium of cultures of adult cartilage, or the tissue was maintained at 4 degrees C after labeling, the half-lives of the proteoglycans were greater, 24 and greater than 300 days, respectively. Analyses of the radiolabeled proteoglycans remaining in the matrix of the tissue immediately after labeling the tissue and at various times in culture revealed two main populations of proteoglycans; a large species eluting with Kav of 0.21-0.24 on Sepharose CL-2B, of high bouyant density and able to form aggregates with hyaluronate, and a small species eluting with a Kav of 0.63-0.70 on Sepharose CL-2B, of low buoyant density, containing only chondroitin sulfate chains, and unable to form aggregates with hyaluronate. The larger proteoglycan had shorter half-lives than the smaller proteoglycan; in cartilage maintained with serum, the half-lives were 9.8 and 14.5 days, respectively. Labeling cartilage with both [3H]leucine and [35S]sulfate showed the small proteoglycan to be a separate synthetic product. The size distribution of 35S-labeled proteoglycans lost into the medium was shown to be polydisperse on Sepharose CL-2B, the majority eluting with a Kav of 0.27 to 0.35, of high buoyant density, and unable to aggregate with hyaluronate. The size distribution of glycosaminoglycans from 35S-labeled proteoglycans appearing in the medium did not differ from that associated with labeled proteoglycans remaining in the matrix.