Changes in the structure of the proteoglycan aggrecan (PG) of articular cartilage were determined immunochemically by RIA and gel chromatography and related to cartilage degeneration documented histologically by the Mankin grading system. Monoclonal antibodies to glycosaminoglycan epitopes were used. In all cartilages, three chondroitin sulfate (CS)-rich populations of large size were observed in addition to a smaller keratan sulfate (KS)-rich population. In grades 7-13 OA cartilages (phase II), molecules were significantly larger than the equivalent molecules of grades 2-6 (phase I). CS chain lengths remained unchanged. In most OA cartilages, a CS epitope 846 was elevated in content, this being most marked in phase II (mean: fivefold). Loss of uronic acid, KS, and hyaluronic acid were only pronounced in phase II OA because of variations in normal contents. Aggregation of PG was unchanged (50-60%) or reduced in OA cartilages, but molecules bearing epitope 846 exhibited almost complete aggregation in normal cartilages. This study provides evidence for the capacity of OA cartilage to synthesize new aggrecan molecules to replace those damaged and lost by disease-related changes. It also defines two phases of PG change in OA: an early predominantly degenerate phase I followed by a net reparative phase II accompanied by net loss of these molecules.