Hyaluronan was shown to have the same turnover time as aggrecan in explant cultures of adult bovine articular cartilage. Inclusion of fetal calf serum in the culture medium resulted in a similar decrease in the rate of catabolism of both hyaluronan and proteoglycan. Less than 9% of the hyaluronan lost from the explants in the course of the experiment was recovered from the culture medium as hyaluronan, suggesting that the catabolism of hyaluronan involves the uptake of this glycosaminoglycan by the chondrocytes. Analysis of the molecular size of the newly synthesized hyaluronan in these cultures showed that the hyaluronan was initially synthesized as large macromolecules that were gradually depolymerized with time within the extracellular matrix. The resulting size distribution of newly synthesized hyaluronan molecules after 12 days in culture was similar to that determined for the endogenous hyaluronan. The kinetics of depolymerization of the newly synthesized hyaluronan was consistent with a random fragmentation of the macromolecule. The rate constants for the depolymerization of hyaluronan indicate that oxygen-derived radicals may be involved in the fragmentation of this macromolecule. Inclusion of either cycloheximide or proteinase inhibitors in the medium of the explant cultures resulted in a marked decrease in the rate of loss of hyaluronan from the tissue and in the inhibition of the depolymerization of the newly synthesized macromolecule. This suggests that both the catabolism and the depolymerization of hyaluronan are cell mediated and depend on metabolically active cells.