Very little is known about the turnover of extracellular matrix in the human intervertebral disc. We measured concentrations of specific molecules reflecting matrix synthesis and degradation in predetermined regions of 121 human lumbar intervertebral discs and correlated them with ageing and Thompson grade of degeneration. Synthesis in intervertebral discs, measured by immunoassay of the content of a putative aggrecan biosynthesis marker (846) and the content of types I and II procollagen markers, is highest in the neonatal and 2-5-yr age groups. The contents of these epitopes/molecules progressively diminished with increasing age. However, in the oldest age group (60-80 yr) and in highly degenerated discs, the type I procollagen epitope level increased significantly. The percentage of denatured type II collagen, assessed by the presence of an epitope that is exposed with cleavage of type II collagen, increased twofold from the neonatal discs to the young 2-5-yr age group. Thereafter, the percentage progressively decreased with increasing age; however, it increased significantly in the oldest group and in highly degenerate discs. We identified three matrix turnover phases. Phase I (growth) is characterized by active synthesis of matrix molecules and active denaturation of type II collagen. Phase II (maturation and ageing) is distinguished by a progressive drop in synthetic activity and a progressive reduction in denaturation of type 11 collagen. Phase III (degeneration and fibrotic) is illustrated by evidence for a lack of increased synthesis of aggrecan and type II procollagen, but also by an increase in collagen type II denaturation and type I procollagen synthesis, both dependent on age and grade of tissue degeneration.