To better understand the biochemistry of matrix-forming cells, we developed a simple and reproducible procedure for the isolation and identification by N-terminal sequencing of proteins secreted by cells into culture medium and applied this procedure to the analysis of the major Coomassie blue-staining proteins under 100 kD that are secreted from three different human osteoblastic cell cultures. The major proteins secreted by normal human osteoblasts from adult trabecular bone were identified by N-terminal sequencing to be gelatinase, osteonectin, the C-terminal propeptides of the alpha 1 and alpha 2 chains of type I collagen, tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase 1 (TIMP-1), and beta 2-microglobulin. The amounts of each of these proteins secreted into medium over a 24 h interval did not change over the 7 consecutive days of culture under serum-free conditions, which indicates that this pattern of protein secretion is not significantly affected by the serum-free conditions needed for protein identification by this method. In addition, radioimmunoassay for bone gla protein (BGP), a marker for osteoblast phenotype, revealed that BGP secretion remained high over 7 days of culture under serum-free conditions and was comparable to the rate of BGP secretion in control cultures with 10% serum. The major proteins secreted by MG-63 cells were identified by N-terminal sequencing to be gelatinase, a novel 40 kD human bone protein we termed YKL-40, TIMP-1, the recently discovered TIMP-2, and beta 2-microglobulin. Further studies revealed that YKL-40 is the only protein detectable by Coomassie staining of SDS gels of MG-63 media proteins that is induced by extended time at confluence or by treatment with 1,25-(OH)2D3. The apparent absence of detectable Coomassie-stained bands corresponding to the C-terminal propeptides of collagen in the medium of MG-63 cells suggests that these transformed cells may not be a good model for bone matrix formation. The major proteins secreted by normal fetal osteoblastic cells were identified by N-terminal sequencing to be osteonectin and the C-terminal propeptides of the alpha 1 and alpha 2 chains of type I collagen. Gelatinase and TIMP could not be detected among the conditioned medium proteins by these methods. These observations indicate that fetal osteoblasts primarily express proteins that are matrix constituents and adult human osteoblasts secrete, in addition to these, proteins that could function in matrix turnover.