Cell surface proteoglycans play an important part in the functional and metabolic behaviour of leucocytes. We studied the expression of cell surface proteoglycans in human monocytes, in monocyte-derived immature and mature dendritic cells and in macrophages by metabolic labelling with [(35)S]-sulphate, reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) and Western blotting. Immature dendritic cells had the highest metabolic activity for the synthesis of cell surface proteoglycans. The major part of these proteoglycans was in phosphatidylinositol-anchored form and was released after treatment with phospholipase C. A minor part was released by trypsin. Digestion with chondroitinase ABC and mild HNO(2) treatment showed that cell surface proteoglycans had a higher proportion of chondroitin sulphate, both in the phospholipase C and trypsin fractions, suggesting that at least some glypicans contained chondroitin sulphate chains. RT-PCR detected the transcripts of glypicans 1, 3, 4 and 5 and all syndecans. Immature dendritic cells expressed a most complex spectrum of glypicans and syndecans, glypican-1 and syndecan-1 being expressed preferentially by this type of cells. Mature dendritic cells expressed glypican-3, which was not present in other lineages. These results suggest that different mononuclear cells synthesize cell surface proteoglycans actively with characteristic expression of different syndecans and glypicans genes, depending on the degree of cell differentiation and/or maturation.