The platelet fibrinogen receptor, which is composed of glycoproteins IIb (GPIIb) and IIIa (GPIIIa), belongs to a large family of receptors that participate in a multitude of biologically important adhesive interactions. Platelets from most patients with the autosomal recessive bleeding disorder, Glanzmann's thrombasthenia, are deficient in GPIIb and GPIIIa. We have used cDNA probes to analyze the GPIIb and GPIIIa genes in four patients from three kindreds with Glanzmann's thrombasthenia. Southern analysis of their DNA was identical to that observed in normals when probed with a full-length GPIIb cDNA or a 3′ GPIIIa cDNA. However, in one family, a 5′ 2.0 kb GPIIIa cDNA identified abnormal DNA fragments in the father and two affected siblings' genes. A series of restriction digests resulting in small genomic fragments were probed with portions of the 5′ 2.0 kb GPIIIa cDNA and indicated that the abnormal sequences are flanked by normal fragments of the GPIIIa gene. To analyze further the genetic defect in this family, RNA was prepared from their platelets. Northern analysis revealed normal levels of GPIIb mRNA compared to control platelets. We were unable to identify GPIIIa mRNA of any size in the clinically affected family members. We also identified an EcoRI restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) that permitted carrier status determination in the clinically unaffected siblings. These studies indicate that Glanzmann's thrombasthenia can be caused by heterogeneous defects in the GPIIIa gene. Furthermore, we have shown that platelets can be used to characterize normal and abnormal GPIIIa and GPIIb mRNA, and RFLPs may be used to determine the carrier status in some families with Glanzmann's thrombasthenia. The specific gene abnormality in this family appears to represent an example of an insertional mutation resulting in a human disease.