The actions of interleukin 1 (IL1) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF alpha) on several parameters of the collagen metabolism of rabbit articular chondrocytes were studied by comparing the responses of either differentiated chondrocytes in primoculture or dedifferentiated cells in late passage culture to human recombinant (hr) IL1 alpha, hr-TNF alpha and cytokine-enriched fractions of rabbit macrophage-conditioned media. In response to IL1 or TNF alpha, differentiated chondrocytes (i.e., producing the cartilage-specific collagens, types II and XI, but no type I), sharply reduced their synthesis of collagen, a reduction which involved both types II and XI collagens, without consistently changing their production of non-collagenous proteins; they also incorporated a smaller proportion of collagen into the matrix. Similar levels of response were obtained for hr-IL1 alpha at picomolar and for hr-TNF alpha at nanomolar concentrations. However, the action of TNF alpha, but not of IL1, was manifested only in the presence of serum. Simultaneously, IL1, but not TNF alpha, induced the chondrocyte production of procollagenase (a difference which contrasted with the similar levels of procollagenase induced by both cytokines in synovial and skin fibroblasts) but neither cytokine influenced the accumulation of the collagenase inhibitor TIMP. These effects were not affected by indomethacin and are thus unlikely to be prostaglandin-mediated. During their dedifferentiation in monolayer subcultures, chondrocytes became more sensitive to the procollagenase-inducing ability of IL1 and TNF alpha, but their response to TNF alpha was lower than to IL1. They also increased their production of TIMP, which remained unaffected by the cytokines. Simultaneously, they decreased their production of collagen and substituted progressively the synthesis of fibroblast-specific collagens, types I, III and V, for types II and XI. Acting on dedifferentiated cells, even in the presence of indomethacin, IL1 and TNF alpha further decreased the synthesis of collagen, reducing the production of both typical type I (i.e. [alpha 1(I)]2 x alpha 2(I) molecules) and type V collagens as well as their incorporation into the matrix, but increasing the synthesis of type III collagen. Therefore not only IL1, but also TNF alpha can exert profound influences on the collagen degradation and repair processes occurring in the pathology of articular cartilage.