Tendons are collagenous tissues made of mainly Type I collagen and it has been shown that the major proteoglycans of tendons are decorin and versican. Little is still known about the catabolism of these proteoglycans in tendon. Therefore, the aim of the study was to characterise the proteoglycans including their catabolic products present in uncultured bovine tendon and in the explant cultures of tendon. In this study, the proteoglycans were extracted from the tensile region of deep flexor tendon and isolated by ion-exchange chromatography and after deglycosylation analysed by SDS-polyacrylamide electrophoresis, Western blotting and amino-terminal amino acid sequence analysis. Based on amino acid sequence analysis, approximately 80% of the total proteoglycan core proteins in fresh tendon was decorin. Other species that were detected were biglycan and the large proteoglycans versican (splice variants V(0) and/or V(1)) and aggrecan. Approximately 35% of decorin present in the matrix showed carboxyl-terminal proteolytic processing at a number of specific sites. The analysis of small proteoglycans lost to the medium of tendon explants showed the presence of biglycan and decorin with the intact core protein as well as decorin fragments that contained the amino terminus of the core protein. In addition, two core protein peptides of decorin starting at residues K(171) and D(180) were observed in the matrix and one core protein with an amino-terminal sequence commencing at G(189) was isolated from the culture medium. The majority of the large proteoglycans present in the matrix of tendon were degraded and did not contain the G1 globular domain. Furthermore the aggrecan catabolites present in fresh tendon and lost to the medium of explants were derived from aggrecanase cleavage of the core protein at residues E(373)-A(374), E(1480)-G(1481) and E(1771)-A(1772). The analysis of versican catabolites (splice variants V(0) and/or V(1)) also showed evidence of degradation of the core protein by aggrecanase within the GAG-beta subdomain, as well as cleavage by other proteinase(s) within the GAG-alpha and GAG-beta subdomains of versican (variants V(0) and/or V(2)). Degradation products from the amino terminal region of type XII collagen were also detected in the matrix and medium of tendon explants. This work suggests a prominent role for aggrecanase enzymes in the degradation of aggrecan and to a lesser extent versican. Other unidentified proteinases are also involved in the degradation of versican and small leucine-rich proteoglycans.