Primary cultures of adherent rheumatoid synovial cells (ASC) are comprised of variable proportions of fibroblasts, macrophages and stellate cells (activated fibroblasts). These cultures were shown to produce the metalloproteinases stromelysin-1 (MMP-3), gelatinase A (MMP-2) and gelatinase B (MMP-9) by Western blotting and zymography techniques. Immunolocalisation studies showed that MMP-3 was mainly produced by the fibroblastic cells whereas MMP-9 was restricted to macrophages (CD68 positive). Subcultured synovial fibroblasts, devoid of macrophages, did not produce MMP-9 as judged by zymography and immunolocalisation; but when stimulated with phorbol myristate acetate and interleukin-1 alpha both MMP-9 and MMP-3 were co-expressed. These 'activated' fibroblasts assumed a dendritic or stellate morphology, which in localisation studies was usually associated with enhanced enzyme production. Immunolocalisation studies of rheumatoid synovial tissue showed that relatively few cells were positive for MMP-3 and MMP-9. Localisation of MMP-9 corresponded to a proportion of macrophages positive for the CD68 marker throughout the synovial tissue. MMP-3 localisation was not associated with the macrophage marker, but was observed in both the synovial lining layer and deeper stromal locations. Widespread distribution of both enzymes was not observed in fresh tissues, but this increased in tissues subjected to short-term explant cultures. Thus, both in vitro and in vivo studies indicated that synovial fibroblasts or B-cells are effective producers of MMP-3 whereas macrophages elaborate MMP-9, observations that demonstrated different metalloproteinase phenotypes under similar environmental conditions.