Hyperglycemic conditions are known to increase mRNA and protein levels of several extracellular matrix molecules in cultured mesangial cells, but accompanying increases in proteoglycan mRNA have not been found, and there are discrepant reports of normal or decreased proteoglycan synthesis with or without undersulfation in diabetic kidneys and hyperglycemic cultures. We examined the effects in proliferating cells of glucose on [35S]Sulfate incorporation into heparan and dermatan sulfates and on mRNA levels of decorin, biglycan, and basement membrane perlecan. In both mesangial cells and vascular smooth muscle cells, 30 mmol/L glucose caused a decrease of 15% to 25% in the amount of sulfate incorporated into each proteoglycan in cultures confluent for 1 to 4 days, compared with 10 mmol/L glucose. The effect showed no specificity for the class of proteoglycan and was not a consequence of changes in total protein synthesis, which increased, or cell proliferation, which was unaffected. No decrease in charge density of any of the proteoglycan fractions was observed by ion-exchange chromatography. Therefore, the decrease in labeling was due to a decrease in synthesis and not undersulfation. mRNA levels for biglycan and perlecan increased slightly and transiently, and these changes cannot account for the decreased synthesis. Decorin mRNA was detected only in smooth muscle cells, where it and biglycan were differentially affected by glucose, apparently at the transcriptional level; stabilities of the two messages were unaffected by glucose. Although transforming growth factor-beta 1 (TGF-beta 1) mRNA levels increased in response to glucose, the cytokine did not appear to regulate proteoglycan synthesis, because structural changes in proteoglycans elicited by addition of TGF-beta 1 to the culture medium did not occur in the hyperglycemic cultures. On the other hand, inhibition and downregulation of protein kinase C (PKC), while decreasing net sulfate incorporation into mesangial cell proteoglycans, prevented the effect of high glucose. We conclude that a high glucose concentration causes a general decrease in the synthesis of all classes of proteoglycans at a posttranscriptional level, and can do so without affecting the charge density of individual proteoglycan molecules.