This paper describes temporal changes in the metabolism and distribution of newly synthesized aggrecan and the organization of the extracellular matrix when explant cultures of articular cartilage maintained in the presence of fetal calf serum were exposed to retinoic acid for varying periods of time. Explant cultures of articular cartilage were incubated with radiolabeled sulfate prior to exposure to retinoic acid. The radiolabeled and chemical aggrecan present in the tissue and appearing in the culture medium was studied kinetically. Changes in the localization of radiolabeled aggrecan within the extracellular matrix were monitored by autoradiography in relation to type VI collagen distribution in the extracellular matrix. In control cultures where tissue levels of aggrecan remain constant the newly synthesized aggrecan remained closely associated with the territorial matrix surrounding the chondrocytes. Exposure of cultures to retinoic acid for the duration of the experiment, resulted in the extensive loss of aggrecan from the tissue and the redistribution of the remaining radiolabeled aggrecan from the chondron and territorial matrix into the inter-territorial matrix. These changes preceded alterations in the organization of type VI collagen in the extracellular matrix that involved the remodeling of the chondron and the appearance of type VI collagen in the inter-territorial matrix; there was also evidence of chondrocyte proliferation and clustering. In cartilage explant cultures exposed to retinoic acid for 24 h there was no loss of aggrecan from the matrix but there was an extensive redistribution of the radiolabeled aggrecan into the inter-territorial matrix. This work shows that maintenance of the structure and organization of the extracellular matrix that comprises the chondron and pericellular microenvironment of chondrocytes in articular cartilage is important for the regulation of the distribution of newly synthesized aggrecan monomers within the tissue.