The timing and molecular profile of cartilage destruction in Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus infectious arthritis and killed Mycobacterium butyricum adjuvant arthritis are presented. Infectious arthritis was studied for 3 weeks; cartilage samples were analyzed at 2, 10, and 21 days. At 48 h postinfection, glycosaminoglycan content was reduced by 20% (p less than 0.05) in E. coli infected knees and by 42% (p less than 0.05) in tibial plateau cartilage of S. aureus infected knees. By the 3rd week of infection, glycosaminoglycan losses amounted to as much as 73% (p less than 0.005). In comparison, collagen losses were not significant prior to the 3rd week of infection, at which time 42% (p less than 0.05) was lost. Adjuvant arthritic tibial plateau cartilage was examined at 1, 3 and 12 weeks. Glycosaminoglycans decreased by 42% the 1st week, plateauing at 62% by the 3rd and 12th weeks. Collagen degradation began at 3 weeks (28% loss, p less than 0.10) and by the 12th week was reduced by 49% (p less than 0.005). Analysis of the individual species of glycosaminoglycan showed a parallel loss of chondroitin sulfate and keratan sulfate. Fractionation of glycosaminoglycans with respect to size produced no evidence of shortened chains in cartilage from infected joints. Hyaluronic acid losses were greatest when collagen was significantly decreased. The pattern by which chondroitin and keratan sulfates are lost demonstrates that a prominent feature of infectious and noninfectious inflammatory arthritis is a rapid loss of proteoglycan subunits that precedes collagen loss.