The catabolism of 35S-labeled aggrecan and loss of tissue glycosaminoglycans was investigated using bovine articular cartilage explant cultures maintained in medium containing 10(-6) M retinoic acid or 40 ng/ml recombinant human interleukin-1alpha (rHuIL-1alpha) and varying concentrations (1-1000 microg/ml) of sulfated glycosaminoglycans (heparin, heparan sulfate, chondroitin 4-sulfate, chondroitin 6-sulfate, dermatan sulfate and keratan sulfate) and calcium pentosan polysulfate (10 microg/ml). In addition, the effect of the sulfated glycosaminoglycans and calcium pentosan polysulfate on the degradation of aggrecan by soluble aggrecanase activity present in conditioned medium was investigated. The degradation of 35S-labeled aggrecan and reduction in tissue levels of aggrecan by articular cartilage explant cultures stimulated with retinoic acid or rHuIL-1alpha was inhibited by heparin and heparan sulfate in a dose-dependent manner and by calcium pentosan polysulfate. In contrast, chondroitin 4-sulfate, chondroitin 6-sulfate, dermatan sulfate and keratan sulfate did not inhibit the degradation of 35S-labeled aggrecan nor suppress the reduction in tissue levels of aggrecan by explant cultures of articular cartilage. Heparin, heparan sulfate and calcium pentosan polysulfate did not adversely affect chondrocyte metabolism as measured by lactate production, incorporation of [35S]-sulfate or [3H]-serine into macromolecules by articular cartilage explant cultures. Furthermore, heparin, heparan sulfate and calcium pentosan polysulfate inhibited the proteolytic degradation of aggrecan by soluble aggrecanase activity. These results suggest that highly sulfated glycosaminoglycans have the potential to influence aggrecan catabolism in articular cartilage and this effect occurs in part through direct inhibition of aggrecanase activity.