Three distinct gene products, the alpha and beta chains of glycoprotein (GP) Ib and GP IX, constitute the platelet membrane GP Ib-IX complex, a receptor for von Willebrand factor and thrombin involved in platelet adhesion and aggregation. Defective function of the GP Ib-IX complex is the hallmark of a rare congenital bleeding disorder of still undefined pathogenesis, the Bernard-Soulier syndrome. We have analyzed the molecular basis of this disease in one patient in whom immunoblotting of solubilized platelets demonstrated absence of normal GP Ib alpha but presence of a smaller immunoreactive species. The truncated polypeptide was also present, along with normal protein, in platelets from the patient's mother and two of his four children. Genetic characterization identified a nucleotide transition changing the Trp-343 codon (TGG) to a nonsense codon (TGA). Such a mutation explains the origin of the smaller GP Ib alpha, which by lacking half of the sequence on the carboxyl-terminal side, including the trans-membrane domain, cannot be properly inserted in the platelet membrane. Both normal and mutant codons were found in the patient, suggesting that he is a compound heterozygote with a still unidentified defect in the other GP Ib alpha allele. Nonsense mutation and truncated GP Ib alpha polypeptide were found to cosegregate in four individuals through three generations and were associated with either Bernard-Soulier syndrome or carrier state phenotype. The molecular abnormality demonstrated in this family provides evidence that defective synthesis of GP Ib alpha alters the membrane expression of the GP Ib-IX complex and may be responsible for Bernard-Soulier syndrome.