We have studied the interaction of the congenitally abnormal type IIA and IIB von Willebrand factor (vWF) molecules, both lacking the larger multimeric forms, with the two vWF binding sites on platelets, the glycoprotein (GP) Ib-IX and GP IIb-IIIa complexes. Variant as well as normal (N) vWF were purified from plasma. Estimates for binding of subunit molecules per platelet at saturation (Bmax) and dissociation constant in moles/liter (Kd), respectively, were obtained from binding isotherms of 125I-labeled vWF, with the following results. In the presence of ristocetin (binding to GP Ib-IX): N, 25,693 and 0.5 x 10(-8); IIA, both parameters not measurable; IIB, 17,708 and 0.87 x 10(-8). After thrombin stimulation (binding to GP IIb-IIIa): N, 17,059 and 1.12 x 10(-8); IIA, 23,751 and 4.87 x 10(-8); IIB, 19,890 and 2.52 x 10(-8). Distinct experiments based on measuring the ability of the variant species (from the same patients and one additional IIB patient) to inhibit the binding of normal 125I-vWF to platelets gave results in agreement with those reported above. Other studies showed that only IIB vWF bound to platelets in the absence of any mediating substance (Kd = 5.21 x 10(-8) mol/liter and Bmax = 9,599 subunits per platelet) and induced aggregation at a concentration of 10 micrograms/ml (3.6 x 10(-8) M). Thus, IIB vWF binds to GP Ib-IX with high affinity and induces platelet aggregation, whether with or without ristocetin, in spite of the absence of larger multimers. In contrast, the binding of IIA vWF to GP Ib-IX occurs with very decreased affinity, and this defective function may result from specific structural abnormalities rather than just being a reflection of the absence of larger multimeric forms. Both IIA and IIB vWF exhibit decreased affinity for GP IIb-IIIa. In this case, the extent of the defect correlates with the absence of larger multimers.