In the present report we describe the isolation of a functional domain of platelet membrane glycoprotein (GP) Ib which retains von Willebrand factor (vWF)-binding activity. Glycocalicin, a proteolytic fragment of the alpha-chain of GP Ib generated by an endogenous calcium-activated protease, was submitted to digestion with trypsin. The two resulting fragments, one of 45 kDa extending between residues His1 and Arg293 and representing the amino terminus of the alpha-chain, the other of 84 kDa corresponding to the previously described macroglycopeptide, were purified to homogeneity. Glycocalicin, as well as the 45- and 84-kDa fragments, inhibited the ristocetin-dependent binding of native vWF to platelet GP Ib. The concentration inhibiting 50% of binding (IC50) was between 1 and 5 microM with all these molecules. In contrast, the binding of asialo-vWF to platelet GP Ib, measured directly in the absence of ristocetin, was blocked by glycocalicin and the 45-kDa fragment with a similar IC50, but not by the 84-kDa fragment. Both glycocalicin and the 45-kDa fragment bound to purified surface-bound vWF in a ristocetin-dependent manner and with similar affinities. Monoclonal antibodies against vWF or GP Ib inhibited this interaction in a way consistent with their inhibition of vWF binding to platelet GP Ib. These studies demonstrate that the amino-terminal extracytoplasmic region of the alpha-chain, extending between residues 1 and 293, contains a functional domain that interacts with vWF in the absence of any other structure of the GP Ib complex or any other platelet membrane component. Whereas the ristocetin-dependent binding of vWF may involve also other domains in the macroglycopeptide region, the direct vWF-GP Ib interaction appears to be mediated only by a domain in the amino-terminal region of GP Ib alpha.