We investigated the degradation and tissue distribution of cartilage oligomeric matrix protein in normal, osteoarthritic and rheumatoid arthritic articular cartilage of the human knee. Cartilage was subjected to sequential extractions with buffers containing neutral salt, with EDTA, and finally with guanidine/HCl and then was analyzed by Western blotting with a polyclonal antiserum to human cartilage oligomeric matrix protein. Western blots of the nine neutral salt extracts from normal cartilage revealed mostly intact pentameric molecules of cartilage oligomeric matrix protein, in contrast to the 13 osteoarthritic and five rheumatoid arthritic cartilage samples that demonstrated marked degradation of cartilage oligomeric matrix proteins as noted by a predominance of reduction-sensitive bands at approximately 150 kDa and nonreduction-sensitive bands in the 67-94 kDa range. The EDTA and guanidine/HCl extracts from all groups were similar and showed mostly intact molecules of cartilage oligomeric matrix protein, with smaller amounts of degraded cartilage oligomeric matrix protein identical to those resolved by the Western blots of the neutral salt extracts Western blots of matched pairs of synovial fluid and cartilage extracts demonstrated cartilage oligomeric matrix protein fragments of the same molecular mass. Competitive enzyme- linked immunosorbent assay revealed significantly less cartilage oligomeric matrix protein in rheumatoid articular cartilage than in either normal or osteoarthritic cartilage. In contrast to normal cartilage, where cartilage oligomeric matrix protein was predominately localized to the interterritorial matrix throughout all zones of the matrix, with increased staining in the deeper cartilaginous zones, the most intense staining in osteoarthritic cartilage was in the superficial zones of fibrillated cartilage, with little to no immunostaining in the midzones and relatively poor staining in the deeper cartilaginous zones. This distribution was the verse of that for proteoglycans, as demonstrated by toluidine blue staining, where proteoglycans were depleted primarily from the superficial fibrillated cartilage. In mild to moderately affected rheumatoid cartilage, the tissue distribution of cartilage oligomeric matrix protein was similar to the distribution of proteoglycans, with relatively uniform staining of the interterritorial and territorial matrices. In more severely affected rheumatoid cartilage, the superficial zones demonstrated punctate immunostaining for cartilage oligomeric matrix protein in the interterritorial and territorial matrices, and staining was restricted to the territorial matrix in the deep cartilaginous zones. It is evident from this study that (a) noncollagenous proteins such as cartilage oligomeric matrix protein are greatly affected in arthritis, (b) degradation fragments released from the matrix into the synovial fluid reflect the processes occurring within the matrix, and (c) different zones of the articular cartilage are susceptible to degradation of cartilage oligomeric matrix protein in the different disease processes.