We have found that the form of glycoprotein (GP) IIb-IIIa (integrin alpha IIb beta 3) expressed on nonstimulated platelets is a functional receptor that mediates selective and irreversible adhesion to immobilized fibrinogen. This occurs even in the presence of the elevated intracellular cAMP levels induced by prostaglandin E1 or after inhibition of protein kinase C activity by sphingosine. In the absence of inhibitors, platelets adhering to fibrinogen through GP IIb-IIIa become fully activated and aggregate with one another. Immobilized von Willebrand factor (vWF), in contrast, is recognized by nonstimulated platelets through another receptor, GP Ib. This interaction leads to a change in the ligand recognition specificity of GP IIb-IIIa that can then bind to immobilized vWF and mediate irreversible platelet adhesion and aggregation; this process, however, is inhibited by elevated intracellular cAMP levels or blockade of protein kinase C activity. Therefore, GP Ib and GP IIb-IIIa induce platelet activation through the selective recognition of immobilized vWF and fibrinogen, respectively, in the absence of exogenous agonists. Moreover, "nonactivated" and "activated" GP IIb-IIIa exhibits distinctly different reactivity toward surface-bound vWF, and the functional switch can be induced by the binding of vWF to GP Ib. These findings demonstrate the modulation of platelet function by two different adhesion receptors, GP Ib and GP IIb-IIIa, as well as the distinct dual role of the latter as the necessary common mediator of irreversible adhesion and aggregation on both fibrinogen and vWF.