Prostaglandins are locally produced in a number of tissues in response to a variety of stimuli, including local growth factors and systemic hormones. The present investigation characterizes prostaglandin effects on growth plate chondrocytes. Since cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) may act as a prostaglandin-stimulated second messenger, the effects of prostaglandins A1, D2, E1, E2, F2 alpha, and I2 (10(-10)-10(-6) M) on cAMP levels and thymidine incorporation were evaluated. The stimulation of cAMP and thymidine incorporation by the various prostaglandin metabolites were dose dependent and highly correlated (r = 0.99, p less than 0.001). The magnitude of the effect varied but was maximal at 10(-6) M for each of the prostaglandins. Prostaglandins of the E series (E1 and E2) were the most potent, causing significant effects at 10(-10) M and with maximal 12- and 13-fold increases in DNA synthesis after a 24 h exposure. Prostaglandins D2 and A1 maximally stimulated thymidine incorporation by 4.7- and 3.1-fold but caused significant increases only at 10(-8) M. Prostaglandins F2 alpha and I2 were the least stimulatory, producing small but significant increases in thymidine incorporation at 10(-6) M (30 and 100% stimulations). A causal relationship between cAMP and thymidine incorporation was further verified by the ability of dibutyryl-cAMP to increase DNA synthesis. Long-term chondrocyte cultures treated continuously with PGE2 demonstrated an increase in cell number, confirming the proliferative effect. Indomethacin did not alter the potent dose-dependent stimulations of chondrocyte DNA synthesis by TGF-beta 1, basic FGF, or PTH, indicating that these known mitogens act independently of prostaglandin metabolism. PGE2 was further examined for its effects of matrix synthesis. PGE2 inhibited collagen synthesis with a maximal 42% decrease but did not alter noncollagen protein synthesis. In contrast, PGE2 maximally increased sulfate incorporation by 35% and caused a small dose-dependent inhibition in alkaline phosphatase activity. Thus, prostaglandins alter DNA and matrix synthesis in growth plate chondrocytes and may have an important role in chondrocyte metabolism in the growth plate, fracture callus, and other areas of endochondral ossification.