Proteoglycan synthesis by slices of adult bovine articular cartilage is stimulated two-to threefold when tissue is cultured in the presence of fetal calf serum for 5-6 days. After this, essentially steady-state conditions are achieved for up to 14 days in which the high synthetic rates are maintained and the amount of proteoglycan in the tissue remains nearly constant. In the absence of fetal calf serum, synthesis declines to a lower level and there is a gradual, net loss of proteoglycan from the tissue. Tissue maintained without serum for several days rapidly increases synthetic rates to the higher levels over 2-3 days after transferring into medium with serum, and vice versa, indicating that the response of the chondrocytes to serum factors is reversible. The structures of the proteoglycans synthesized under all medium conditions were typical for cartilage. Only small differences in glycosaminoglycan chain sizes and a consistent decrease in the relative amount of keratan sulfate to chondroitin sulfate during the first days in the culture were observed. The net capacity of the cells for chondroitin sulfate synthesis, as estimated by incubation in the presence of exogenous beta-xyloside acceptor, increased (or decreased) in parallel with the changes in endogenous proteoglycan synthesis when cultures were transferred from medium without to medium with serum (or vice versa), suggesting that changes in the net amounts of the enzymes for chondroitin sulfate synthesis are closely coordinated with changes in the amount of core protein being processed to proteoglycans. The responses of calf articular cartilage in the same system were somewhat different. Serum in the medium was required to maintain initial high levels of synthesis. The proteoglycans synthesized contained a lower proportion of keratan sulfate than those initially synthesized in the adult tissue, and there was no change in this proportion with time in culture. The maintenance of steady-state conditions for proteoglycan metabolism by either adult or calf tissue in the presence of serum in these cultures should provide a useful model for studying the regulation of synthesis and catabolism of proteoglycans by chondrocytes residing in a nearly normal extracellular matrix for long periods of time.