von Willebrand factor (vWF) supports platelet adhesion on thrombogenic surfaces by binding to platelet membrane glycoprotein (GP) Ib in the GP Ib-IX receptor complex. This interaction is physiologically regulated so that it does not occur between circulating vWF and platelets but, rather, only at a site of vascular injury. The abnormal vWF found in type IIB von Willebrand disease, however, has a characteristically increased affinity for GP Ib and binds to circulating platelets. We have analyzed the molecular basis of this abnormality by sequence analysis of a type IIB vWF cDNA and have identified a single amino acid change, Trp550 to Cys550, located in the GP Ib-binding domain of the molecule comprising residues 449-728. Bacterial expression of recombinant fragments corresponding to this vWF domain yielded molecules that, whether containing a normal Trp550 or a mutant Cys550 residue, bound directly to GP Ib in the absence of modulators and with similar affinity. In contrast, mammalian cell expression of the same segment of sequence yielded molecules that, when containing the normal Trp550, did not bind to GP Ib directly but, like native vWF, bound in the presence of ristocetin. However, molecules containing the point mutation (Cys550) behaved like type IIB vWF--namely, bound to GP Ib even without ristocetin modulation and, in the presence of ristocetin, had 10-fold higher affinity than molecules with normal sequence. These results identify a region of vWF that, although not thought to be directly involved in binding to GP Ib, may modulate the interaction through conformational changes.