Among the small proteoglycans, biglycan and decorin have been proposed to be potent modulators of TGF-beta-mediated inflammatory kidney diseases. They were considered to become induced during glomerulonephritis and to subsequently inactivate the cytokine. Decorin and biglycan as well as their endocytosis receptor were investigated in normal rat renal cortex, in anti-Thy-1 glomerulonephritis, in polycystic kidneys, in the remnant kidney following 5/6-nephrectomy, and in kidneys from the Milan normotensive strain by immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridization. Northern blots were used for the detection of mRNA expression for decorin and biglycan in isolated glomeruli. Functional aspects of the endocytosis of decorin and biglycan were studied in cultured mesangial cells. In the normal adult rat kidney decorin was expressed preferentially by Bowman's capsule and by interstitial connective tissue cells, but only in trace amounts by mesangial cells. In contrast, biglycan was found in tubular epithelial cells, in association with glomerular capillaries, podocytes and occasionally in the mesangium. In the tubulointerstitium of diseased kidneys (polycystic kidneys, 5/6-nephrectomy, kidneys from the Milan normotensive strain) there was a general up-regulation of decorin expression, while biglycan was localized only in distinct foci of fibrotic lesions. Glomerulosclerosis (5/6-nephrectomy, Milan normotensive strain) was associated with an increased staining for both decorin and biglycan within glomeruli. However, even in the anti-Thy-1 model of an acute mesangioproliferative glomerulonephritis where the greatest accumulation of decorin was found there was only a slight enhancement of decorin mRNA in isolated glomeruli. Decorin and biglycan become degraded upon receptor-mediated endocytosis. Immunohistochemical investigations indicated that the pattern of expression of the receptor protein correlated well with the immunolocalization of both decorin and biglycan. In vitro experiments with cultured mesangial cells provided direct evidence for the expression of the receptor and for the cell's capability to endocytose decorin as well as biglycan. Decorin and biglycan are characterized by a distinct expression pattern in the normal rat kidney, whereas the presence of their endocytosis receptor protein correlates with the expression of both proteoglycans. Decorin is almost completely absent in the normal mesangium. Both proteoglycans become up-regulated in various models of renal disease. The mesangial accumulation of decorin in the anti-Thy-1 glomerulonephritis that is observed in spite of the only slightly enhanced mRNA expression could result from decreased decorin turnover and/or increased mesangial retention.