Using indirect immunofluorescence microscopy we examined the distribution and cycling of GPIIb/IIIa after binding to applaggin, a high-affinity Arg-Gly-Asp (RGD)--containing ligand. Resting, unfixed platelets were incubated with applaggin for 30 minutes at 37 degrees C, and bound applaggin was detected by an affinity-purified rabbit anti- applaggin antibody. Examination of intact cells showed a rim pattern for applaggin, consistent with its binding to the platelet surface. Staining of Triton X-100--permeabilized cells showed an intracellular pool of applaggin. Competition of applaggin binding by either AP-2, an anti-GPIIb/IIIa monoclonal antibody (MoAb) that blocks fibrinogen binding, or the synthetic peptide RGDW eliminated both surface and intracellular staining, indicating that applaggin is binding to GPIIb/IIIa in an RGD-dependent manner. Inhibition of platelet activation by PGE1 and theophylline had no effect on the observed staining patterns, indicating that cellular activation is not required for surface binding and subsequent internalization. To evaluate whether occupancy of functional binding sites on GPIIb/IIIa is required for internalization, we used mAb15, an anti-GPIIIa antibody that neither blocks fibrinogen binding nor induces the expression of ligand-induced binding sites on GPIIb/IIIa. In these studies mAb15 was internalized in a manner analogous to both AP-2 and applaggin, showing that occupancy of the RGD binding site is not required to initiate receptor internalization. To estimate the size of the newly internalized pool of applaggin, 125I-applaggin--binding studies were performed. Displacement of bound 125I-applaggin by excess unlabeled applaggin or EDTA showed that at least 17% of bound applaggin was nondisplaceable when binding was performed under conditions permitting membrane flow and internalization. These data indicate that GPIIb/IIIa is internalized in unstimulated platelets independent of cellular activation or occupancy of the functional binding site(s) of GPIIb/IIIa by RGD-containing ligands. Thus, internalization of GPIIb/IIIa may represent a mechanism by which the surface expression of this adhesion receptor is regulated.