This study shows that cultured human articular chondrocytes express high levels of 1.4 kb prepro-enkephalin mRNA. Chondrocytes store met-enkephalin intracellularly and secrete this neuropeptide in mature as well as in precursor form. Gene expression is inducible by serum factors. High levels of prepro-enkephalin mRNA are detected in proliferating chondrocytes but not in confluent, contact-inhibited cells. Phorbol myristate acetate and dibutyryl cyclic AMP, but not dexamethasone, increase levels of prepro-enkephalin mRNA. Furthermore, transforming growth factor beta (TGF beta) and platelet derived growth factor (PDGF) upregulate gene expression, whereas retinoic acid, which inhibits chondrocyte proliferation, suppresses both basal and induced gene expression. Using in situ hybridization it is shown that only 1-3% of primary chondrocytes express prepro-enkephalin mRNA, whereas 52 +/- 12% of subcultured cells are strongly positive. Analysis of DNA synthesis, by autoradiography of incorporated [3H]thymidine, shows that these numbers correspond to the percentage of cells in S-phase of the cell cycle. In cultures of primary chondrocytes TGF beta promotes the formation of cartilage nodules and stimulates proliferation of adherent cells. This is associated with high levels of prepro-enkephalin mRNA in proliferating cells but not in contact-inhibited cells in cartilage nodules. In contrast, formation of cartilage nodules, proliferation and the expression of enkephalin are suppressed by interleukin-1 beta. In summary, expression of prepro-enkephalin in human articular chondrocytes is differentially controlled by cartilage regulatory factors and closely associated with cell proliferation.