Recent evidence suggests that decreased chondrocyte function in osteoarthritis and other articular disorders may be due to chondrocyte dedifferentiation produced by altered regulatory signals from the cartilage extracellular matrix (ECM). However, there are currently no mammalian chondrocytic cell line systems adapted to the study of this process. We therefore examined the effects of ECM growth conditions on markers of differentiated chondrocytic phenotype expression in the nontransformed rat RCJ 3.1C5.18 (RCJ) chondrocyte cell line, including type II collagen expression, aggrecan production, link protein gene expression, and parathyroid hormone (PTH) receptor number. RCJ cells grown in monolayer on plastic exhibited a dedifferentiated phenotype characterized by flattened cell morphology, with > 80% type I collagen and < 5% type II collagen production, as determined by two-dimensional gel mapping electrophoresis of collagen cyanogen bromide peptides. In addition, aggrecan production was low, and link protein mRNA was not expressed at detectable levels. After transfer to growth under minimal attachment conditions on the surface of a composite type I collagen/agarose (0.15%-0.8%) gel (CAG) for 7 days, RCJ cells developed a rounded, chondrocytic morphology and a pattern of differentiated, chondrocytic gene expression, with 79% type II and 8% type I collagen production. Steady-state type I and type II procollagen mRNA levels were altered in parallel with collagen protein expression. In cells grown on CAG, aggrecan production increased 6-fold, and there was a marked increase in both aggrecan core protein and link protein mRNA levels. In addition, maximal PTH-stimulated cAMP generation increased 15-fold in association with an increased PTH receptor number. Therefore, the RCJ chondrocyte cell line is highly sensitive to ECM regulation of chondrocyte-specific gene expression.