von Willebrand factor (vWF) is necessary for the initial attachment of platelets to exposed subendothelium, particularly under flow conditions like those prevailing in the microcirculation. Little is known about its possible participation in subsequent events leading to formation of platelet thrombi at sites of vascular injury. We addressed this question by studying the mechanisms by which desialylated vWF induces platelet aggregation in the absence of any other stimulus. Asialo vWF, unlike the native molecule, does not require ristocetin to interact with platelets. Agglutination induced by ristocetin is largely independent of active platelet metabolism and only partially reflects physiological events. We have shown here that binding of asialo vWF to platelets was accompanied by release of dense granule content and subsequent ADP-dependent fibrinogen binding to receptors on the glycoprotein (GP) IIb/IIIa complex. The initial interaction of asialo vWF with platelets was mediated by GPIb, as shown by blocking obtained with monoclonal antibody. Inhibition of this initial interaction completely abolished platelet aggregation induced by asialo vWF. The same effect was obtained with a monoclonal anti-GPIIb/IIIa antibody. This, however, did not block asialo vWF binding to platelets, but rather inhibited subsequent fibrinogen binding induced by asialo vWF. Therefore, the latter process was also essential for platelet aggregation under the conditions described. At saturation, asialo vWF induced binding of between 3.2 and 27.7 X 10(3) fibrinogen molecules/platelet, with an apparent dissociation constant between 0.28 and 1.18 X 10(-6) M. This study shows that asialo, and possibly native, vWF acts as a platelet agonist after its binding to GPIb and induces aggregation through a pathway dependent on GPIIb/IIIa-related receptors.