The addition of foetal calf serum to explant cultures of adult bovine articular cartilage is known to stimulate proteoglycan synthesis in a dose-dependent manner. We have now shown the activity in serum responsible for this effect to be heat- and acid-stable, to be associated with a high-Mr complex in normal serum but converted to a low-Mr form under acid conditions. The activity has an apparent Mr approximately 10,000 and isoelectric points similar to those reported for insulin-like growth factors (IGFs). Addition of a monoclonal antibody against insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-I) prevented foetal calf serum from stimulating proteoglycan synthesis. Physiological concentrations of recombinant IGF-I or pharmacological levels of insulin when added to cartilage cultures mimicked the proteoglycan-stimulatory activity of serum. IGF-I appeared to act by increasing the rate of proteoglycan synthesis and did not change the nature of the proteoglycan synthesized nor the rate of proteoglycan catabolism by the tissue, suggesting that IGF-I may be important in the regulation of proteoglycan metabolism in adult articular cartilage. Furthermore, IGF-I can replace foetal calf serum in the culture medium, thereby allowing the use of a fully-defined medium which will maintain the synthesis and tissue levels of proteoglycan in adult articular cartilage explants for up to 5 days.