We have evaluated the efficacy of utilizing radioimmunoassays (RIAs) for prothrombin activation fragments (F2/F1 + 2) and for thrombin-- antithrombin complex (TAT) in purified systems and in whole blood. During venipuncture, appropriate anticoagulants were employed in order to prevent the generation of thrombin and factor Xa. The RIAs were shown to be specific for F2/F1 + 2 as well as TAT and did not interact with other plasma components. Initially, thrombin generation was studied in a purified human system of prothrombin, antithrombin, factor Xa, and factor V as well as phospholipid and Ca++. Under these conditions, the kinetics of F2/F1 + 2 and TAT generation were virtually superimposable. However, when factor V was omitted from the reaction mixture, a significantly greater amount of F2/F1 + 2 as compared to TAT was observable. Subsequently, prothrombin activation was monitored during the spontaneous coagulation of freshly drawn blood. Throughout the entire course of thrombin generation, the observable rate of formation of F2/F1 + 2 was considerably greater than that of TAT. We have examined the levels of F2/F1 + 2 and TAT in normal individuals. Our studies indicate that the concentrations of F1 + 2 and TAT average 1.97 nM and 2.32 nM, respectively. We have also quantitated the concentrations of F2/F1 + 2 and TAT in patients with disseminated intravascular coagulation. In these individuals, the levels of both components are elevated. However, the ratio of F1 + 2 to TAT ranges from 2.37 to 5.55. Thus, we conclude that under in vivo conditions, prothrombin activation is characterized by the accumulation of a stable precursor, such as prethrombin-2, and that this phenomenon may be related to an alteration of factor V function.