To analyze the basis of affinity modulation of integrin function, we studied cloned stable Chinese hamster ovary cell lines expressing recombinant integrins of the beta 3 family (alpha IIb beta 3 and alpha v beta 3). Antigenic and peptide recognition specificities of the recombinant receptors resembled those of the native receptors found in platelets or endothelial cells. The alpha IIb beta 3-expressing cell line (A5) bound RGD peptides and immobilized fibrinogen (Fg) but not soluble fibrinogen or the activation-specific monoclonal anti-alpha IIb beta 3 (PAC1), indicating that it was in the affinity state found on resting platelets. Several platelet agonists failed to alter the affinity state of ("activate") recombinant alpha IIb beta 3. The binding of soluble Fg and PAC1, however, was stimulated in both platelets and A5 cells by addition of IgG papain-digestion products (Fab) fragments of certain beta 3-specific monoclonal antibodies. These antibodies stimulated PAC1 binding to platelets fixed under conditions rendering them unresponsive to other agonists. Addition of these antibodies to detergent-solubilized alpha IIb beta 3 also stimulated specific Fg binding. These data demonstrate that certain anti-beta 3 antibodies activate alpha IIb beta 3 by acting directly on the receptor, possibly by altering its conformation. Furthermore, they indicate that the activation state of alpha IIb beta 3 is a property of the receptor itself rather than of the surrounding cell membrane microenvironment.