Undifferentiated human melanoma cell lines produce a large chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan, different from the well-known melanoma-specific proteoglycan mel-PG (Heredia and colleagues, Arch Biochem Biophys, 333: 198-206, 1996). We have identified this proteoglycan as versican and analyzed the expression of versican in several human melanoma cell lines. Versican isoforms are expressed in undifferentiated cell lines but not in differentiated cells, and the isoform expression pattern depends on the degree of cell differentiation. The V0 and V1 isoforms are found on cells with an early degree of differentiation, whereas the V1 isoform is present in cells with an intermediate degree of differentiation. We have also characterized some functional properties of versican on human melanoma cells: the purified proteoglycan stimulates cell growth and inhibits cell adhesion when cells are grown on fibronectin or collagen type I as substrates, and thus may facilitate tumor cell detachment and proliferation. Furthermore, we have analyzed the expression of versican in human melanocytic nevi and melanoma: 10 benign melanocytic nevi, 10 dysplastic nevi, 11 primary malignant melanomas, and 8 metastatic melanomas were tested. Immunoreactivity for versican was negative in benign melanocytic nevi, weakly to strongly positive in dysplastic nevi, and intensely positive in primary malignant melanomas and metastatic melanomas. Our results indicate that versican is involved in the progression of melanomas and may be a reliable marker for clinical diagnosis.