Interactions between articular chondrocytes and components of the extracellular matrix are of potential importance in the normal function of cartilage and in the pathophysiology of arthritis. Little is known of the basis of these interactions, but cell adhesive molecules such as CD44 are likely to be involved. Immunohistology using six well-characterized anti-CD44 monoclonal antibodies demonstrated standard CD44 isoform (CD44H) expression by all chondrocytes in normal and osteoarthrotic (OA) cartilage but absence of the CD44E variant. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) of reverse transcribed mRNA from monolayer cultures of normal and OA chondrocytes using primer sequences which span the region containing variably spliced exons produced a predominant band representing the standard form of CD44, which lacks the variable exons 6-15 (v1-v10). No product was seen at the expected size of the epithelial variant of CD44 (CD44v8-10). Use of exon-specific primers, however, showed expression of variant exons resulting in multiple minor isoforms. Standard CD44 was also shown to be the predominantly expressed isoform identified by immunoprecipitation, but human articular chondrocytes did not adhere to hyaluronan in vitro. Chondrocyte CD44 may function as an adhesion receptor for other matrix molecules such as fibronectin or collagen.