Patients whose platelets are deficient in glycoprotein (GP) Ib, IIb- IIIa (thrombasthenia), or granule substances (storage pool deficiency, SPD) were studied to define further the properties of platelets that mediate platelet adhesion and thrombus formation on subendothelium. Both nonanticoagulated and citrated blood were exposed to everted, de- endothelialized rabbit vessel segments under controlled flow conditions and shear rates varying from 650 to 3,300 sec-1. Morphometry was used to measure platelet thrombus dimensions and the percentage of the subendothelial surface covered with contact (C) or spread (S) platelets. Adhesion was defined as C + S. The results in SPD demonstrated (1) reduced thrombus dimensions in delta-SPD (pure dense granule deficiency) in proportion to the magnitude of the dense granule defect; (2) an even greater reduction in thrombus dimensions in patients with combined deficiencies of alpha and dense granules (alpha delta-SPD); and (3) impaired platelet adhesion at several conditions in alpha delta-SPD and, in delta-SPD, a hematocrit-dependent impairment of adhesion in citrated blood at 2,600 sec-1. In thrombasthenia, platelets were present as a monolayer on the subendothelial surface in both nonanticoagulated and citrated blood, indicating an absolute requirement for GPIIb-IIIa in promoting platelet-platelet interaction at all shear rates and perfusion times. Two types of abnormalities in platelet-vessel wall interactions were observed. In nonanticoagulated blood, the percentage of platelets in the C phase was consistently increased at all shear rates, but C + S values were normal. These observations indicate that platelets deficient in GPIIb-IIIa do not spread normally on the subendothelial surface exposed to nonanticoagulated blood. With citrated blood, the C + S value in thrombasthenia was reduced at both 800 and 2,600 sec-1, as in von Willebrand's disease, and a similar degree of reduction (about 50%) was observed in normal blood treated with a monoclonal antibody to GPIIb- IIIa. The findings, together with theoretical considerations, are consistent with an hypothesis that GPIIb-IIIa mediates the spreading of platelets on subendothelium following the initial attachment through GPIb and that GPIIb-IIIa may be considered an adhesion site on the platelet membrane. Abnormalities of GPIIb-IIIa may, depending on the conditions of study, result in either increased values of C platelets or decreased values of C + S. The results of the study further suggest that a complex interaction of platelet granule factors and membrane GP mediate platelet adhesion and thrombus formation.