The effect of sulfate concentration in the medium on glycosaminoglycan synthesis in articular cartilage of five different species was examined in relation to the physiological serum sulfate concentration in these species. Only the rate of sulfated glycosaminoglycan synthesis in human articular cartilage was sensitive to small deviations from the physiological sulfate concentration. A reduction in the sulfate concentration from 0.3 mM (physiological) to 0.2 mM resulted in a 33% reduction in glycosaminoglycan synthesis. In addition, we studied the effect of arthritic and "osteoarthritic" alterations in murine cartilage on the dependence of glycosaminoglycan synthesis on low sulfate concentrations. Arthritic and "osteoarthritic" cartilage had a similar dependence on the sulfate concentration in the medium as normal cartilage. Glycosaminoglycan synthesis in human articular cartilage appears to be very sensitive to the potential sulfate-depleting effects of drugs used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.