To examine by immunohistochemistry the relative distributions of 6 matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, and 13) and the 2 proinflammatory cytokines interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha) in osteoarthritic (OA) cartilage compared with normal, age-matched articular cartilage. Articular cartilage samples were obtained from the tibial plateau of OA knees removed at arthroplasty and from normal, nonarthritic, knees obtained at autopsy. Specimens were promptly fixed in Carnoy's fixative, processed, embedded in paraffin, sectioned, and examined by immunohistochemistry for MMP and cytokine production. In addition, human articular chondrocytes (HAC) were treated in vitro with either IL-1beta, TNFalpha, or phorbol myristate acetate (PMA) to assess their potential to produce each of the MMPs, as determined by Western blotting and gelatin zymography. Immunodetection of the collagenases (MMPs 1, 8, and 13) and stromelysin 1 (MMP-3) was demonstrated in a proportion of chondrocytes in the superficial zone of almost all of the OA specimens that had degenerative matrix changes. The gelatinases (MMPs 2 and 9) were also demonstrated by immunohistochemistry but were not so prominent. IL-1beta- and TNFalpha-positive chondrocytes were also observed in a proportion of cells in the superficial zones of OA specimens. Much less immunostaining for MMPs and cytokines was observed in the deep zone of all OA specimens, where the cartilage matrix and chondrocyte morphology appeared normal. In contrast, full-thickness normal cartilage specimens showed virtually no immunostaining for these MMPs or cytokines. Confirmation that chondrocytes can produce these 6 MMPs was obtained from HAC cultures treated with either IL-1beta, TNFalpha, or PMA; conditioned medium from activated HAC contained all the MMPs demonstrated by immunohistochemistry. Dual immunolocalization studies of OA cartilage specimens demonstrated the coexpression of IL-1 with MMP-8 by individual chondrocytes in situ. These results indicate that the superficial zone of OA cartilage specimens, which is characterized by fibrillations, chondrocyte clusters, and degenerative matrix changes, contains a variable proportion of cells that immunostain for IL-1beta, TNFalpha, and 6 different MMPs. These observations support the concept that cytokine-MMP associations reflect a modified chondrocyte phenotype and an intrinsic process of cartilage degradation in OA.