Ionophore A23187-induced 14C-serotonin secretion and thromboxane B2(TxB2) formation were found to be absent in citrated platelet-rich plasma (PRP) from thrombasthenic subjects and in normal PRP treated with glycoprotein (GP) IIb-IIIa complex-specific monoclonal antibodies. Both responses were restored to normal levels when 5 mmol/L EDTA was present, indicating that their absence was not caused by the absence of aggregation per se. In gel-filtered platelets (GFP) incubated with various additions, the blockade or absence of GPIIb-IIIa resulted in reduced A23187-induced secretion and TxB2 formation in media containing 1 mmol/L Ca2+ with or without fibrinogen and 1 mmol/L Mg2+ plus fibrinogen, but not when Ca, Mg-free buffer alone, 1 mmol/L EDTA, or fibrinogen alone were present. In contrast, no such dependence or GPIIb- IIIa was seen in GFP stimulated with thrombin or phorbol myristate acetate in the presence of 1 mmol/L Ca2+, 1 mmol/L EDTA, or buffer alone. The inhibition of ionophore-induced responses seen in both normal GFP treated with antibodies and thrombasthenic GFP was not associated with any significant alteration of the ionophore-mediated [Ca2+]i increase, as measured in both aequorin-loaded GFP stimulated with A23187 and fura-2-loaded GFP stimulated with ionomycin. Incubation of normal GFP with either the monoclonal antibodies or the ligand binding site peptide RGDS in the presence of 1 mmol/L Ca2+ caused virtually complete inhibition of A23187-induced aggregation, measured as the loss of single platelets, but RGDS, in contrast to the antibodies, did not inhibit secretion or TxB2 formation. We conclude that platelet activation induced by ionophores in the presence, but not in the absence, of extracellular divalent cations involves a GPIIb-IIIa- dependent process that most likely involves a property of the ligand- occupied form of the complex distinct from its ability to support aggregation. This could represent another example of an aggregation- independent activity of the receptor-occupied state of the GPIIb-IIIa complex in signal transduction.