The platelet membrane glycoproteins GPIIb and GPIIIa form a calcium- dependent heterodimer that functions as a receptor for adhesive proteins on stimulated platelets. In this study, we have investigated the kinetics of the assembly reaction that result in GPIIb-IIIa dimerization. Pulse-chase experiments analysis performed on human megakaryocytes obtained from liquid cultures of chronic myelogenous leukemic patients with antibodies specific for GPIIIa or GPIIb demonstrated the existence of a pro-GPIIb-GPIIIa complex and of a large pool (60%) of unassociated GPIIIa; nearly all the GPIIb and the pro- GPIIb molecules were found associated with GPIIIa. This free GPIIIa was not exposed on the cell surface. Pulse-chase experiments on a subclone of the human megakaryocytic cell line LAMA-84 revealed that the cells from this subclone produced only the pro-GPIIb, which was neither processed into mature GPIIb nor expressed on the cell surface. The expression of GPIIIa in PMA treated cells resulted in the production of the mature GPIIb form and the expression of the GPIIb-IIIa complex on the cell surface. These results indicate that assembly between the early forms of pro-GPIIb and GPIIIa is an obligatory step for the maturation of the heterodimer and its expression on the cell surface.