We demonstrate that unstimulated platelets attach to immobilized fibrinogen in a selective process mediated by the membrane glycoprotein (GP) complex IIb-IIIa (alpha IIb beta 3). The initial attachment, independent of platelet activation, is followed by spreading and irreversible adhesion even in the presence of activation inhibitors. Using fibrinogen fragments derived from plasmin digestion, we found that unstimulated platelets do not attach to immobilized fragment E, which contains an Arg-Gly-Asp sequence at A alpha 95-97, and adhere to fragments X and D, both containing the gamma 400-411 dodecapeptide adhesion sequence, less efficiently than to intact fibrinogen. Thus, the carboxyl terminus of the A alpha chain, missing in the "early" fragment X used in these studies, appears to be involved in the interaction of fibrinogen with unstimulated platelets. In contrast, activated platelets adhere to immobilized fibrinogen and fragments X, D, and E in a time-dependent and equivalent manner. Although activated platelets adhere to immobilized vitronectin, fibronectin, and von Willebrand factor through GP IIb-IIIa, unstimulated platelets fail to adhere to vitronectin and have only a limited capacity to adhere to fibronectin and von Willebrand factor. These results demonstrate that GP IIb-IIIa on unstimulated platelets displays a recognition specificity for attachment to immobilized adhesive proteins that is distinct from that seen following platelet activation. Thus, unstimulated platelets selectively interact with fibrinogen, and the initial attachment is followed by spreading and irreversible adhesion in the absence of exogenous agonists. This process may be regulated by plasmin cleavage of the fibrinogen A alpha chain and may play an important role during normal hemostasis and during the pathological development of thrombotic vascular occlusions.