The increased catabolism of the cartilage proteoglycan aggrecan is a principal pathological process which leads to the degeneration of articular cartilage in arthritic joint diseases. The consequent loss of sulphated glycosaminoglycans, which are intrinsic components of the aggrecan molecule, compromises both the functional and structural integrity of the cartilage matrix and ultimately renders the tissue incapable of resisting the compressive loads applied during joint articulation. Over time, this process leads to irreversible cartilage erosion. In situ degradation of aggrecan is a proteolytic process involving cleavage at specific peptide bonds located within the core protein. The most well characterised enzymatic activities contributing to this process are engendered by zinc-dependent metalloproteinases. In vitro aggrecanolysis by matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) has been widely studied; however, it is now well recognised that the principal proteinases responsible for aggrecan degradation in situ in articular cartilage are the aggrecanases, two recently identified isoforms of which are members of the 'A Disintegrin And Metalloproteinase with Thrombospondin motifs' (ADAMTS) gene family. In this review we have described: (i) the development of monoclonal antibody technologies to identify catabolic neoepitopes on aggrecan degradation products; (ii) the use of such neoepitope antibodies in studies designed to characterise and identify the enzymes responsible for cartilage aggrecan metabolism; (iii) the biochemical properties of soluble cartilage aggrecanase(s) and their differential expression in situ; and (iv) model culture systems for studying cartilage aggrecan catabolism. These studies have clearly established that 'aggrecanase(s)' is primarily responsible for the catabolism and loss of aggrecan from articular cartilage in the early stages of arthritic joint diseases that precede overt collagen catabolism and disruption of the tissue integrity. At later stages, when collagen catabolism is occurring, there is evidence for MMP-mediated degradation of the small proportion of aggrecan remaining in the tissue, but this occurs independently of continued aggrecanase activity. Furthermore, the catabolism of link proteins by MMPs is also initiated when overt collagen degradation is evident.