Human malignant melanoma cells express specific chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans (mel-CSPG) on the surface, both in vivo and in vitro. Melanocytes in normal skin show no detectable mel-CSPG but can be induced to express the antigen when cultured in the presence of cholera toxin and the tumor promoter 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate. Most other cell types do not express mel-CSPG either in vivo or in vitro. A study was designed to examine regulatory signals controlling mel-CSPG expression. The gene encoding mel-CSPG was mapped to human chromosome 15, and this chromosome was introduced into rodent cells derived from distinct differentiation lineages. Three types of mel-CSPG--expressing hybrids were found: (i) hybrids derived from human melanomas; (ii) hybrids derived from human cells that do not express mel-CSPG; and (iii) hybrids derived from human cells expressing mel-CSPG that are antigen-negative but that are induced to express mel-CSPG when cultured on extracellular matrix instead of plastic surfaces. Thus, mel-CSPG expression can be controlled both through intrinsic signals, provided by the differentiation program of the rodent fusion partner, and through extrinsic signals, provided by specific cell-matrix interactions.