Platelets and megakaryocytes have been characterized in a Bernard-Soulier syndrome (BSS) kindred with respect to glycoprotein (GP) membrane receptors and measurements of thrombocytopoiesis. The index patient exhibited lifelong bleeding tendency, moderate thrombocytopenia (35 x 10(9)/l), giant platelets (mean platelet volume 12.5 microns 3 compared to 7.5 +/- 1.5 microns 3 in normals), absent ristocetin-induced platelet agglutination and absent binding of von Willebrand factor (vWF). Flow-cytometric analysis revealed absent platelet binding (0-2%) of monoclonal antibodies (mAb, LJ-P3, LJ-Ib1 and LJ-Ib10) directed against distinct epitopes on membrane GPIb alpha of the GPIb-IX complex, and normal binding of LJ-P4 mAb directed against GPIIb/IIIa complex (relative to increased platelet surface area). Marrow megakaryocytes also failed to express GPIb-IX complex, but demonstrated normal expression of GPIIb/IIIa. Among 6 asymptomatic family members, the patient's mother and 2 of his 4 children exhibited approximately 50% binding of anti-GPIb alpha mAb to their platelets by both flow cytometry and direct binding studies using 125I-vWF, 125I-LJ-Ib1 and 125I-LJ-Ib10 mAb. Marrow megakaryocytes were increased in the average cell volume and cytoplasmic granularity with a corresponding increase in ploidy (46% > 16N compared to 22 +/- 5% in normal individuals), a pattern typical of megakaryocytes stimulated by thrombocytopenia. Autologous 111In-platelet life span was shortened to 4.1 days (compared with 9.5 +/- 0.5 days in normal subjects), and the turnover of platelet mass in the circulation was near normal. The data directly demonstrate that the platelet membrane GPIb-IX defect in BSS originates in megakaryocytes at all levels of cell maturation, and exclude the possibility that the receptor abnormality is acquired during cell maturation or after platelets are released into the circulation. Since marrow megakaryocytes exhibited cellular changes consistent with stimulated megakaryocytopoiesis, these results also suggest that thrombocytopenia in this kindred of BSS is a consequence of both decreased platelet survival and ineffective platelet production.