Cell proliferation is in part regulated by extracellular matrix. Therefore, it is possible that elevated O2 may indirectly affect lung fibroblast growth via modulation of extracellular matrix. In the present study, we investigated the effect of elevated O2 on the synthesis of glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) and proteoglycans (PGs) by fetal lung fibroblasts. A 48-h exposure to >/=50% O2 reduced the incorporation of [3H]glucosamine and 35SO4 into GAGs by fetal lung fibroblasts. The relative proportion of the individual GAG molecules was not altered by elevated O2. Fibroblasts exposed to 50% O2 secreted less [35S]proteoglycans into the medium than controls. Specifically, the synthesis of the small soluble PG, biglycan, was decreased by exposure to 50% O2. Fetal lung fibroblasts did not synthesize the small chondroitin/dermatan sulfate PG, decorin. Elevated O2 concentrations also reduced the synthesis of membrane- and matrix-associated PGs. Furthermore, exposure of fetal lung fibroblasts to >/=50% O2 resulted in a decreased mRNA expression for biglycan and versican core protein sequences. In contrast, elevated O2 increased the message for type I collagen and fibronectin without affecting that of beta-actin. The inhibitory effect of elevated O2 on biglycan mRNA and protein expression was overcome by incubating the cells in 3% O2 after the 48-h exposure to 50% O2. The latter treatment also reversed the increased mRNA expression of type I collagen associated with elevated O2 but not that of fibronectin. These results demonstrate that fetal lung fibroblasts, in response to elevated oxygen concentrations, selectively down-regulate their GAG and PG synthesis and that this O2 effect is reversible.