The addition of retinoic acid to adult bovine articular cartilage cultures produces a concentration-dependent decrease in both proteoglycan synthesis and the proteoglycan content of the tissue. Total protein synthesis was not affected by the presence of retinoic acid, indicating that the inhibition of proteoglycan synthesis was not due to cytotoxicity. The proteoglycans synthesized in the presence of retinoic acid were similar in hydrodynamic size, ability to form aggregates with hyaluronate, and glycosaminoglycan composition to those of control cultures. However, the presence of larger glycosaminoglycan chains suggests that the core protein was substituted with fewer but longer glycosaminoglycan chains. In cultures maintained with retinoic acid, a decreased ratio of the large proteoglycan was synthesized relative to the small proteoglycan compared to that measured in control cultures. In cultures maintained with retinoic acid for 1 day and then switched to medium with 20% (v/v) fetal calf serum, the rate of proteoglycan synthesis and hexuronate contents increased within 5 days to levels near those of control cultures. Within 2 days of switching to medium with 20% (v/v) fetal calf serum, the relative proportions of the proteoglycan species were similar to those produced in cultures maintained in medium with 20% (v/v) fetal calf serum throughout. The rate of proteoglycan synthesis by bovine articular cartilage cultures exhibited an exponential decay following exposure to retinoic acid, with estimated half-lives of 11.5 and 5.3 h for tissue previously maintained in medium alone or containing 20% (v/v) fetal calf serum, respectively. The addition of 1 mM benzyl beta-D-xyloside only partially reversed the retinoic acid-mediated inhibition of proteoglycan synthesis. This indicates that the inhibition of proteoglycan synthesis by retinoic acid was due to both a decreased availability of xylosylated core protein and a decreased capacity of the chondrocytes to synthesize chondroitin sulfate chains.