While von Willebrand factor (vWF) is secreted from endothelial cells as a very large polymer, it circulates as a series of multimers that are reducible to a 225-kD polypeptide and three proteolytic fragments of 189, 176, and 140 kD. Cleavage at the Tyr-842/Met-843 bond of the vWF polypeptide creates the 140- and 176-kD fragments. In the process of understanding vWF multimer formation, the role of shear stress in vWF proteolysis was investigated in this study. A shear-rate-dependent loss of the largest multimers was observed when normal plasma was perfused through long capillary tubings achieving shear rates normally encountered in the circulation. The shear-dependent vWF change was not observed when purified vWF or normal plasma containing calcium chelator EGTA or EDTA was perfused. As the large multimers decreased, an increase in the smaller multimers, including 200- and 350-kD bands, was detected. Elution and immunoblotting studies with peptide-specific antibodies LJ-7745 and VP-1 showed that the 200-kD band was a dimer of the 140-kD fragment, whereas the 350-kD band was a dimer of the 176-kD fragment. When analyzed after disulfide bonds were reduced, sheared plasma showed an increase in the 176- and 140-kD fragments, but not the 189-kD fragment. Finally, shearing of purified vWF enhanced its proteolytic cleavage when it was subsequently incubated with the cryosupernatant fraction of normal plasma or with cathepsin G, a leukocyte granule serine protease. These results show that shear stress is capable of enhancing the susceptibility of vWF to proteolytic cleavage. It promotes vWF proteolysis in normal plasma at a site that generates the 140-kD/176-kD fragments, leading to a decrease in multimer size. Shear stress might be involved in modulating the size of vWF in the circulation.