Characterization of the binding of [3H]p-aminoclonidine ([3H]PAC) to purified plasma membranes from human platelets has revealed multiple binding sites. [3H]PAC identified site-1 in the picomolar affinity range (site-1 KD estimates ranged from 13 to 94 pM). Site-1 displayed a rank order of competition by various compounds for [3H]PAC, indicative of an alpha 2-adrenoceptor, and was sensitive to 0.1 mM GTP. [3H]PAC also identified a second site with nanomolar affinity (site-2 KD estimates ranged from 0.7 to 1.7 nM). In the presence of 0.1 mM GTP, site-2 was not diminished significantly. Also in contrast to site-1, site-2 displayed low affinity for yohimbine (YOH), (-)-epinephrine and (-)-norepinephrine (NE). Therefore, site-2 could not be an active alpha 2-adrenoceptor; instead it had properties similar to a previously reported imidazoline-preferring binding site. A third site (site-3) bound [3H]PAC with a KD for site-3 of 26.6 +/- 10.0 nM (SD). Site-3 had a rank order of competition by various compounds for 5 nM [3H]yohimbine ([3H]YOH) binding which was indicative of an alpha 2-adrenoceptor. (-)-NE competed for 5 nM [3H]YOH binding at two sites: site-1 Ki = 32 pM, site-3 Ki = 239 nM. Treatment with 0.1 mM GTP completely removed site-1 and transferred the competitive binding of (-)-NE to low affinity (Ki = 437 nM). Thus, site-3 appears to be a free alpha 2-adrenoceptor. Bmax estimates for untreated membranes, derived from simultaneous multi-experiment curve-fitting analyses, were site-1 = 36 +/- 29 fmol/mg plasma membrane protein, site-2 = 95 +/- 34 fmol/mg and site-3 = 154 +/- 35 fmol/mg. We are the first to report a site for [3H]PAC binding on platelets (site-2) with properties uncharacteristic of an adrenoceptor. This observation appears to be due to our use of purified plasma membrane and low ionic strength buffer. These studies relate to reports of increased binding of [3H]PAC to platelets from depressed patients.