Hyaluronan is a straight chain, glycosaminoglycan polymer of the extracellular matrix composed of repeating units of the disaccharide [-D-glucuronic acid-beta1,3-N-acetyl-D-glucosamine-beta1,4-]n. Hyaluronan is synthesized in mammals by at least three synthases with products of varying chain lengths. It has an extraordinary high rate of turnover with polymers being funneled through three catabolic pathways. At the cellular level, it is degraded progressively by a series of enzymatic reactions that generate polymers of decreasing sizes. Despite their exceedingly simple primary structure, hyaluronan fragments have extraordinarily wide-ranging and often opposing biological functions. There are large hyaluronan polymers that are space-filling, anti-angiogenic, immunosuppressive, and that impede differentiation, possibly by suppressing cell-cell interactions, or ligand access to cell surface receptors. Hyaluronan chains, which can reach 2 x 10(4) kDa in size, are involved in ovulation, embryogenesis, protection of epithelial layer integrity, wound repair, and regeneration. Smaller polysaccharide fragments are inflammatory, immuno-stimulatory and angiogenic. They can also compete with larger hyaluronan polymers for receptors. Low-molecular-size polymers appear to function as endogenous "danger signals", while even smaller fragments can ameliorate these effects. Tetrasaccharides, for example, are anti-apoptotic and inducers of heat shock proteins. Various fragments trigger different signal transduction pathways. Particular hyaluronan polysaccharides are also generated by malignant cells in order to co-opt normal cellular functions. How the small hyaluronan fragments are generated is unknown, nor is it established whether the enzymes of hyaluronan synthesis and degradation are involved in maintaining proper polymer sizes and concentration. The vast range of activities of hyaluronan polymers is reviewed here, in order to determine if patterns can be detected that would provide insight into their production and regulation.