The thrombin receptor (PAR-1) is an unusual transmembrane G-protein coupled receptor in that it is activated by serine protease cleavage of its extracellular N-terminus to expose an agonist peptide ligand, which is tethered to the receptor itself. Synthetic peptides containing the agonist motif, such as SFLLRN for human PAR-1, are capable of causing full receptor activation. We have probed the possible bioactive conformations of thrombin receptor-activating peptides (TRAPs) by systematic introduction of certain conformational perturbations, involving alpha-methyl, ester psi(COO), and reduced-amide psi(CH2N) scans, into the minimum-essential agonist sequence (SFLLR) to probe the importance of the backbone conformation and amide NH hydrogen bonding. We performed extensive conformational searches of representative pentapeptides to derive families of putative bioactive structures. In addition, we employed 1H NMR and circular dichroism (CD) to characterize the conformational disposition of certain pentapeptide analogues experimentally. Activation of platelet aggregation by our pentapeptide analogues afforded a structure-function correlation for PAR-1 agonist activity. This correlation was assisted by PAR-1 receptor binding data, which gauged the affinity of peptide ligands for the thrombin receptor independent of a functional cellular response derived from receptor activation (i.e. a pure molecular recognition event). Series of alanine-, proline-, and N-methyl-scan peptides were also evaluated for comparison. Along with the known structural features for PAR-1 agonist peptides, our work adds to the understanding of peptide topography relative to platelet functional activity and PAR-1 binding. The absolute requirement of a positively charged N-terminus for strong agonist activity was contradicted by the N-terminal hydroxyl peptide psi(HO)S-FLLR-NH2. The amide nitrogen between residues 1 and 2 was found to be a determinant of receptor recognition and the carbonyl groups along the backbone may be involved in hydrogen bonding with the receptor. Position 3 (P3) of TRAP-5 is known to tolerate a wide variety of side chains, but we also found that the amide nitrogen at this position can be substituted by an oxygen, as in SF-psi(COO)-LLR-NH2, without diminishing activity. However, this peptide bond is sensitive to conformational changes in that SFPLR-NH2 was active, whereas SF-NMeL-LR-NH2 was not. Additionally, we found that position 3 does not tolerate rigid spacers, such as 3-aminocyclohexane-1-carboxylic acid and 2-aminocycloalkane-1-carboxylic acid, as analogues 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, 3, 4, 5A and 5B lack agonist activity. On the basis of our results, we suggest that an extended structure of the agonist peptide is principally responsible for receptor recognition (i.e. binding) and that hydrophobic contact may occur between the side chains of the second (Phe) and fourth (Leu) residues (i.e. P2-P4 interaction).