We have investigated the influence of culture substrata upon glycosaminoglycans produced in primary cultures of mouse mammary epithelial cells isolated from the glands of late pregnant mice. Three substrata have been used for experiments: tissue culture plastic, collagen (type I) gels attached to culture dishes, and collagen (type I) gels that have been floated in the culture medium after cell attachment. These latter gels contract significantly. Cells cultured on all three substrata produce hyaluronic acid, heparan sulfate, chondroitin sulfates and dermatan sulfate but the relative quantities accumulated and their distribution among cellular and extracellular compartments differ according to the nature of the culture substratum. Notably most of the glycosaminoglycans accumulated by cells on plastic are secreted into the culture medium, while cells on floating gels incorporate almost all their glycosaminoglycans into an extracellular matrix fraction. Cells on attached collagen gels secrete approx. 30% of their glycosaminoglycans and assemble most of the remainder into an extracellular matrix. Hyaluronic acid is produced in significant quantities by cells on plastic and attached gels but in relatively reduced quantity by cells on floating gels. In contrast, iduronyl-rich dermatan sulfate is accumulated by cells on floating gels, where it is primarily associated with the extracellular matrix fraction, but is proportionally reduced in cells on plastic and attached gels. The results are discussed in terms of polarized assembly of a morphologically distinct basal lamina, a process that occurs primarily when cells are on floating gels. In addition, as these cultures secrete certain milk proteins only when cultured on floating gels, we discuss the possibility that cell synthesized glycosaminoglycans and proteoglycans may play a role in the maintenance of a differentiated phenotype.