The content of filamentous actin in individual platelets was measured by flow cytometry, using a fluorescent probe specific for filamentous actin (F-actin), 7-nitrobenz-2-oxa-1,3-phallacidin (NBD-phallacidin). NBD-phallacidin binding to fixed platelets was specific in that either pretreatment of platelets with unlabeled phallacidin or absorption of NBD-phallacidin by rabbit skeletal F-actin, but not globular actin (G- actin), resulted in a significant loss in the bound fluorescent probe. Mean NBD-phallacidin binding to fixed platelets varied with the agonist and paralleled the changes in F-actin reported with the DNAse I inhibition assay. (1) NBD-phallacidin binding increased with stimulation by ADP, U46619 (a prostaglandin H2 analogue), or collagen and paralleled shape change. (2) Epinephrine did not increase NBD- phallacidin binding. (3) Platelets treated at 4 degrees C contained more F-actin than did platelets kept at 37 degrees C. (4) Cytochalasin D (10 mumol/L) inhibited the increase of phallacidin binding to individual platelets stimulated by either ADP or U46619. In measurements of cytosolic free calcium concentration ([Ca2+]i) by flow cytometry in Indo-1-loaded platelets, ADP's dose-response for actin polymerization was similar to that for calcium mobilization. As shown by flow cytometry, a tail population that had a minimal increase in F- actin upon stimulation with ADP or U46619 also contained the platelets with the least forward and right angle light scattering, which are functions of platelet size and shape. When platelets treated with NBD- phallacidin were incubated with S12-murine monoclonal antibody (a marker of alpha-granule secretion detected by phycoerythrin-conjugated antimouse IgG second antibody), phallacidin fluorescence paralleled S12 binding. Thus, human blood platelets are heterogeneous in regard to actin polymerization at rest and in association with platelet activation; different degrees of phallacidin binding may identify functionally different platelet populations.