Cells from the cysts of patients with autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (PKD) were grown in vitro under standard conditions without the aid of collagen-pretreated surfaces, and both the synthesis and composition of the extracellular matrix were investigated. At confluence, PKD cells presented the typical features of epithelial cells, but showed a different collagen composition from fibroblasts. Compared with normal tubular epithelia (NTE), PKD monolayers produced an excess of extracellular matrix, which accounted for 30% of the total incorporation of [3H] proline, although this value was considerably lower (by a factor of 10) in the case of NTE. Immunohistochemical and electrophoretic techniques revealed a complex collagen composition in the extracellular matrix which included [alpha (III)]3 and collagen IV. However, part of the collagen components remained unidentified in spite of the fact that they exhibited a typical M(r) of alpha 1(I) and alpha 2(I) in the presence of urea. Immunoprecipitation with monospecific antibodies and Northern blotting with specific probes failed to recognize alpha 1(I) and alpha 2(I), but demonstrated their presence in fibroblasts. Purification and cyanogen bromide digestion demonstrated a strong interhomology in fingerprint peptide composition among the uncharacterized collagens synthesized by PKD cells, thus suggesting a common identity. These observations document a markedly augmented production of extracellular matrix by PKD cultured cells in vitro, and show the presence of collagens which do not share homologies with the major collagen molecules. A better characterization of extracellular matrix composition is central to any comprehension of the cytogenetic mechanisms in vivo.