This work investigated the kinetics of catabolism and the catabolic fate of the newly synthesized (35)S-labelled proteoglycans present in explant cultures of tendon. Tissue from the proximal region of bovine deep flexor tendon was incubated with [(35)S]sulfate for 6 h and then placed in explant cultures for periods of up to 15 days. The amount of radiolabel associated with proteoglycans and free [(35)S]sulfate lost to the medium and retained in the matrix was determined for each day in culture. It was shown that the rate of catabolism of radiolabelled small proteoglycans (decorin and biglycan) was significantly slower (T((1/2)) > 20 days) compared with the radiolabelled large proteoglycans (aggrecan and versican) that were rapidly lost from the tissue (T((1/2)) approximately 2 days). Both the small and large newly synthesized proteoglycans were lost from the matrix with either intact or proteolytically modified core proteins. When explant cultures of tendon were maintained either at 4 degrees C or in the presence of the lysosomotrophic agent ammonium chloride, inhibition of the cellular catabolic pathway for small proteoglycans was demonstrated indicating the involvement of cellular activity and lysosomes in the catabolism of small proteoglycans. It was estimated from these studies that approximately 60% of the radiolabelled small proteoglycans that were lost from the tissue were degraded by the intracellular pathway present in tendon cells. This work shows that the pathways of catabolism for large aggregating and small leucine-rich proteoglycans are different in tendon and this may reflect the roles that these two populations of proteoglycans play in the maintenance of the extracellular matrix of tendon.