Mural and cumulus granulosa cells synthesize hyaluronic acid (HA) and expand in vitro in response to follicle-stimulating hormone and a soluble factor(s) produced by fully grown oocytes. In the present study we examined HA synthesis and extracellular matrix organization by the two cell populations in vivo during the preovulatory period. After injection of human chorionic gonadotropin into pregnant mares' serum gonadotropin-primed animals, a progressive increase in HA synthesis was observed by the cumulus cell-oocyte complex (COC), and by the mural granulosa cells adjacent to the antrum (antral granulosa cells). The outermost layers of mural granulosa cells (peripheral granulosa cells) did not synthesize HA. Net HA synthesis was approximately 4 pg/cell for COCs isolated after full expansion induced either in vivo or in vitro, whereas the total HA content and cell number in the ovulated COC (approximately 11 ng HA and approximately 3000 cells per COC) were about threefold higher than for COCs expanded in vitro (approximately 4 ng HA and approximately 1000 cells per COC). The increased cell content of ovulated COCs appears to be primarily the result of inclusion of proximal mural granulosa cells which synthesize HA in response to the oocyte factor(s) and become incorporated in the expanded COC extracellular matrix mass. Media conditioned by oocytes enclosed in the cumulus cell mass (intact COCs) contained only 10-20% of the HA-stimulatory activity of media conditioned by an equal number of isolated oocytes when tested on mural granulosa cell cultures. Further, HA-stimulatory activity of media conditioned by isolated oocytes was dramatically reduced (approximately 70%) by preincubation for 5 hr with cumulus cells compared to preincubation in the absence of cells. The results suggest that differences in HA synthesis between subregions of membrana granulosa depend on a diffusion gradient of the oocyte factor(s).