Cartilage proteoglycan aggregates were subjected to degradation by a metalloproteinase, capable of degrading proteoglycan, released from cartilage in culture. This proteinase was demonstrated to be immunologically identical with fibroblast stromelysin. An early release of hyaluronic acid-binding region and large glycosaminoglycan-attachment regions was observed. With increasing time the glycosaminoglycan-attachment regions were digested into smaller fragments and the hyaluronic acid-binding regions accumulated. The degradation of link proteins also occurred concomitantly with these events. Link proteins were converted into a component of similar size to that of the smallest native link protein component. N-Terminal sequence analysis of the three human link protein components indicated that they are all derived from the same protein core, which is closely homologous to that of the rat chondrosarcoma link protein. The two larger link proteins (Mr 48,000 and 44,000) contain the same N-terminal sequence, but they differ by the apparent presence of an N-linked oligosaccharide at residue 6 of the largest link protein component. The smallest link protein (Mr 41,000), however, has an N-terminal sequence equivalent to that commencing at residue 17 in the larger link proteins. It was found that the cartilage metalloproteinase cleaves link proteins in human neonatal cartilage proteoglycan aggregates at the His-16-Ile-17 bond, the same position at which the smallest link protein component appears to be derived naturally from the two larger link protein components. These results suggest that stromelysin secreted by chondrocytes can account for the increased accumulation of hyaluronic acid-binding regions and much of the degradation of link protein observed during aging within human articular cartilage.