Osteopontin, a sulfated phosphoprotein with cell binding and matrix binding properties, is expressed in a variety of tissues. In the embryonic growth plate, osteopontin expression was found in bone-forming cells and in hypertrophic chondrocytes. In this study, the expression of osteopontin was analyzed in normal and osteoarthritic human knee cartilage. Immunohistochemistry, using a monoclonal anti-osteopontin antibody was negative on normal cartilage. These results were confirmed in Western blot experiments, using partially purified extracts of normal knee cartilage. No osteopontin gene expression was observed in chondrocytes of adult healthy cartilage, however, in the subchondral bone plate, expression of osteopontin mRNA was detected in the osteoblasts. In cartilage from patients with osteoarthritis, osteopontin could be detected by immunohistochemistry, Western blot analysis, in situ hybridization, and Northern blot analysis. A qualitative analysis indicated that osteopontin protein deposition and mRNA expression increase with the severity of the osteoarthritic lesions and the disintegration of the cartilaginous matrix. Osteopontin expression in the cartilage was limited to the chondrocytes of the upper deep zone, showing cellular and territorial deposition. The strongest osteopontin detection was found in deep zone chondrocytes and in clusters of proliferating chondrocytes from samples with severe osteoarthritic lesions. These data show the expression of osteopontin in adult human osteoarthritic chondrocytes, suggesting that chondrocyte differentiation and the expression of differentiation markers in osteoarthritic cartilage resembles that of epiphyseal growth plate chondrocytes.