We recently observed that specific antibodies to type II collagen do not bind in appreciable amounts to the intact surface of articular cartilage, whereas antibodies to the minor collagen types V, VI, and IX do. These results suggest that the outermost cartilage surface layer prevented interaction of the antibodies with the major collagen type in articular cartilage. The present studies were designed to investigate the pathogenic mechanisms involved in the disruption of the cartilage surface layer in inflammatory arthritis. Articular cartilage obtained from rabbits undergoing acute antigen-induced arthritis of 72 h duration showed a significant increase in binding of anti-type II antibody to cartilage surfaces compared with normal control cartilage (P less than 0.01). Augmentation of anti-type II binding was also observed upon in vitro incubation of bovine articular slices or intact rabbit patellar cartilage for 1 h with human polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMN), PMN lysates, or purified human PMN elastase. This increase was not inhibited by sodium azide, nor was it enhanced by incubation of cartilage with the strong oxidant hypochlorous acid. Chondrocyte-mediated matrix proteoglycan degradation in cartilage explants cultured in the presence of cytokines failed to increase antibody binding appreciably. The augmentation in antibody binding seen with PMN lysates was inhibited by the nonspecific serine-esterase inhibitor PMSF, but not by the divalent metal chelator EDTA. The elastase-specific inhibitor AAPVCMK also inhibited most of the PMN-induced increase in antibody binding, whereas the cathepsin G-specific inhibitor GLPCMK was much less effective. Incubation of intact cartilage with purified human PMN elastase indicated that this serine esterase could account for the increase in anti-type II collagen antibody binding to intact cartilage surfaces. These studies suggest that in an inflammatory response, PMN-derived elastase degrades the outer layer of articular cartilage, exposing epitopes on type II collagen. They also help clarify the pathogenic mechanisms involved in early articular cartilage damage in inflammatory joint diseases.