Cartilage degradation is a characteristic feature of various types of human arthritis, notably rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. The influence of glucocorticoid and other steroid hormones on cartilage proteoglycan breakdown was examined in a model system in which breakdown is readily quantified by the release of proteoglycan from cultured bovine nasal cartilage discs. Endotoxin (bacterial lipopolysaccharides) treatment enhanced the depletion of cartilage proteoglycan by 2-3 fold. This was inhibited in a concentration-dependent manner by hydrocortisone (10(-9) to 10(-5) M) or other glucocorticoid hormones (dexamethasone, prednisolone, cortisone). Inhibition required the continued presence of the steroid. Removal of hydrocortisone (3 x 10(-7) M) after 4 days from endotoxin-treated cultures resulted in the rapid restoration of an endotoxin response, so that proteoglycan release approached maximum levels during a second 4-day culture period. Other C-21 steroid hormones (progesterone, aldosterone) were also inhibitory at 10(-5) M, but testosterone and beta-estradiol showed little influence on endotoxin action. Proteoglycan products of smaller average mol wt (Sepharose CL-2B chromatography), consistent with core protein cleavages, were released from endotoxin-treated cartilage. Cleavage was unaffected by beta-estradiol, partially blocked by aldosterone and largely prevented by hydrocortisone administration.