In situ hybridization and immunohistochemical techniques were applied to investigate gene expression and extracellular deposition of collagen type II in normal, osteoarthritic and rheumatoid human articular cartilage. Normal cartilage showed an essentially even extracellular distribution of type II collagen with poly- and monoclonal antibodies, while only a few cells were positive for alpha 1(II) collagen mRNA. In situ hybridization of osteoarthritic and rheumatoid cartilage, however, showed strong enhancement of type II collagen gene expression; transcripts were observed predominantly in the upper middle zone of the articular cartilage while the upper layer was mostly negative and correlated with a zone of reduced proteoglycan staining. The elevated mRNA levels frequently coincided with pericellular immunostaining for type II collagen, indicative for enhanced synthesis of the protein. In two samples, however, pericellular loss of collagen type II staining was found despite positive cytoplasmic signals with the alpha 1(II) RNA probe, suggesting enhanced collagen destruction. Control hybridization with a probe for 18S rRNA revealed very few negative cells throughout both normal and arthritic cartilage samples, ruling out major cell necrosis in the specimens investigated. Thus, our observations identify sites of activated type II collagen synthesis in osteoarthritic cartilage that were predicted by previous biochemical studies and support the notion that damaged cartilage attempts to restore matrix by enhanced synthesis of its components.