This study provides a comparative analysis of the temporal and spatial distribution of 5 intervertebral disc (IVD) proteoglycans (PGs) in sheep. The main PGs in the 2 and 10 y old sheep groups were polydisperse chondroitin sulphate and keratan sulphate substituted species. Their proportions did not differ markedly either with spinal level or disc zone. In contrast, the fetal discs contained 2 slow migrating (by composite agarose polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis, CAPAGE), relatively monodisperse chondroitin sulphate-rich aggrecan species which were also identified by monoclonal antibody 7-D-4 to an atypical chondroitin sulphate isomer presentation previously found in chick limb bud, and shark cartilage. The main small PG detectable in the fetal discs was biglycan, whereas decorin predominated in the 2 and 10 y old IVD samples; its levels were highest in the outer annulus fibrosus (AF). Versican was most abundant in the AF of the fetal sheep group; it was significantly less abundant in the 2 and 10 y old groups. Furthermore, versican was immunolocalised between adjacent layers of annular lamellae suggesting that it may have some role in the provision of the viscoelastic properties to this tissue. Versican was also diffusely distributed throughout the nucleus pulposus of fetal IVDs, and its levels were significantly lower in adult IVD specimens. This is the first study to identify versican in ovine IVD tissue sections and confirmed an earlier study which demonstrated that ovine IVD cells synthesised versican in culture (Melrose et al. 2000). The variable distribution of the PGs identified in this study provides further evidence of differences in phenotypic expression of IVD cell populations during growth and development and further demonstrates the complexity of the PGs in this heterogeneous but intricately organised connective tissue.