Chondrocytes isolated from bovine articular cartilage were plated at high density and grown in the presence or absence of ascorbate. Collagen and proteoglycans, the major matrix macromolecules synthesized by these cells, were isolated at times during the course of the culture period and characterized. In both control and ascorbate-treated cultures, type II collagen and cartilage proteoglycans accumulated in the cell-associated matrix. Control cells secreted proteoglycans and type II collagen into the medium, whereas with time in culture, ascorbate-treated cells secreted an increasing proportion of types I and III collagens into the medium. The ascorbate-treated cells did not incorporate type I collagen into the cell-associated matrix, but continued to accumulate type II collagen in this compartment. Upon removal of ascorbate, the cells ceased to synthesize type I collagen. Morphological examination of ascorbate-treated and control chondrocyte culture revealed that both collagen and proteoglycans were deposited into the extracellular matrix. The ascorbate-treated cells accumulated a more extensive matrix that was rich in collagen fibrils and ruthenium red-positive proteoglycans. This study demonstrated that although ascorbate facilitates the formation of an extracellular matrix in chondrocyte cultures, it can also cause a reversible alteration in the phenotypic expression of those cells in vitro.