The activation of Factor IX by tissue factor-Factor VII has been studied in a bovine plasma system under conditions that minimize the activation of Factor VII. The plasma was defibrinated, then passed twice through a column of anti-Factor X coupled to Sepharose in order to lower the Factor X level below its limit of assay (ca. 5 ng/ml), and once through an anti-Factor IX column to remove Factor IX. Varying levels of tritium-labelled Factor IX were then added back to the plasma, permitting measurement of its activation upon the addition of tissue factor and Ca2+. Despite the absence of significant levels of Factor X in the system, the course of Factor IX activation was initially characterized by some upward curvature, which suggested activation of the plasma Factor VII during the incubation. In order to obtain linear activation of Factor IX three proteolytic inhibitors were added to the system: 1) a Factor Xa inhibitor, 1,2-bis-(5-amidinobenzimidazole)-ethane, 2) aprotinin, and 3) heparin. Under these conditions the apparent Km of non-activated Factor VII (+ tissue factor) on Factor IX was 17.3 +/- 2.5 nM (SE), and the maximum velocity was 0.12 nM/min. In parallel experiments the plasma Factor VII was activated by first treating the plasma with Factor Xa for 30 seconds before the addition of inhibitors and the final addition of substrate. Under these conditions the maximum velocity rose to 4.2 nM/min, and the Km increased to 53.3 +/- 6.0 nM (SE). This change in the Km is highly significant (P less than 0.002), and indicates that the activation of Factor IX by nonactivated plasma Factor VII cannot be due only to traces of Factor VIIa in the plasma. At least in part, activation of Factor IX in the presence of tissue factor is suggested to be a result of the action of Factor VII itself.