The ability of heparin to dramatically enhance the inactivation of thrombin (IIa) by antithrombin III (ATIII) in buffer is negated through formation of a IIa-fibrin-heparin ternary complex (Hogg and Jackson, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 86:3619, 1989; Hogg and Jackson, J Biol Chem 265:241, 1990). IIa, in this ternary complex, is protected from inactivation by ATIII. Our aim was to determine whether fibrin also compromises heparin efficacy in plasma. We found that soluble fibrin ablated the heparin-mediated prolongation of the thrombin time with half-maximal effect at 60 nmol/L fibrin. The heparin-mediated prolongation of the activated partial thromboplastin time (APTT) was also reduced by fibrin with half-maximal effects at 140 nmol/L fibrin using 0.12 U/mL heparin and 500 nmol/L fibrin using 0.25 U/mL heparin. The mechanism of inhibition of heparin activity by fibrin in plasma was determined by measuring IIa-ATIII complexes by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Fibrin was found to inhibit the heparin- catalyzed inactivation of IIa by ATIII with half-maximal effect at 97 +/- 19 nmol/L fibrin. Fibrin had no effect on the heparin-catalyzed inactivation of factor Xa by ATIII in plasma, using either standard heparin, a heparinoid preparation (Orgaran; Organon, Lane Cove, Sydney, Australia), or low-molecular weight heparin. These findings imply that fibrin is a potent modulator of heparin activity in vivo by inhibiting heparin-catalyzed IIa-ATIII complex formation through formation of ternary IIa-fibrin-heparin complexes.