Fibronectin fragments have both catabolic and anabolic activities toward articular cartilage explants in vitro. Whereas a 1 nM concentration of an N-terminal 29 kDa fibronectin fragment (Fn-f) increases the proteoglycan (PG) content of cartilage without induction of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), 0.1-1 microM Fn-f temporarily suppresses PG synthesis and enhances MMP release. The higher concentrations cause an initially rapid PG depletion during the first week of culture, followed by much slower PG loss and gradually increasing rates of PG synthesis. To test for the involvement of mediators, human articular cartilage was cultured with Fn-f, and conditioned media were assayed for selected cytokines and factors. With 1 nM Fn-f, the release of the anabolic factors, insulin growth factor-I and transforming growth factor beta1, from cultured cartilage was enhanced by 50-100% during the entire 28-day culture period and this was associated with both supernormal rates of PG synthesis and PG content. However, the higher concentrations of Fn-f additionally enhanced release, by at least 10-fold, of the cytokines, tumour necrosis factor alpha, interleukin-1alpha, interleukin-1beta and interleukin-6 while causing depletion of cartilage PG. Release of tumour necrosis factor alpha, interleukin 1beta and interleukin 1alpha peaked at days 2, 3 and 9 during or slightly after the period of maximal PG depletion and decreased to control levels by days 7, 7 and 21 respectively, whereas release of interleukin 6 was enhanced throughout the culture period. Neutralizing antibodies to the catabolic cytokines reduced Fn-f-mediated MMP-3 release and suppression of PG synthesis. The temporal aspects of this interplay between catabolic and anabolic factors are consistent with the kinetics of Fn-f-mediated cartilage damage and attempted repair and may be relevant to cartilage damage and repair in vivo.