Chondrocyte-matrix interaction is mediated by a series of adhesion molecules. Both alpha and beta integrin subunits are involved and govern crucial functions of cell adhesion and signal transduction. These molecules modulate proliferation and differentiation, thus establishing cartilage integrity. We studied the influence of magnesium deficiency and quinolone antibiotics (which form chelate complexes with divalent cations) on chondrocytes in vitro in order to assess the role of Mg2+ ions in integrin function and to establish cellular changes mediated via integrin signal transduction. Mg2(+)-free medium and quinolone supplementation was found to decrease chondrocyte attachment to collagen type II-coated coverslips. Adhesion and growth of chondrocytes were reduced in the respective medium. Organisation of cytoskeletal fibers (vimentin) was changed and formation of stress fibers (f-actin) was disturbed. Additionally, rates of cell proliferation declined. These results indicate that quinolone-magnesium complex formation is important for chondrotoxicity of these substances. Cell-matrix detachment and morphological alterations described in vitro may explain the lesions observed in articular cartilage after quinolone administration in vivo. The attachment assay described could serve as a simple test to establish the susceptibility of chondrocytes of different species to different quinolones in use or new ones to be introduced.