The major platelet integrin, glycoprotein IIb-IIIa, binds soluble fibrinogen only after platelet activation. To investigate the mechanism by which platelets convert glycoprotein IIb-IIIa into a functional fibrinogen receptor, we characterized the opening and closing of fibrinogen-binding sites in isolated platelet membranes and compared the regulatory properties of membrane-bound glycoprotein IIb-IIIa with those of the detergent-solubilized receptor. Basal fibrinogen binding to the membranes possessed many of the properties of fibrinogen binding to activated platelets; however, less than 10% of glycoprotein IIb-IIIa in the membranes was capable of binding fibrinogen. Preincubating the membranes with either an activating glycoprotein IIb-IIIa antibody or alpha-chymotrypsin increased fibrinogen binding. In contrast, agents that require intracellular mediators, such as platelet agonists, guanine-nucleotide-binding-protein activators and purified protein kinase C, did not stimulate fibrinogen binding to the membranes, suggesting that cytosolic factor(s) may be required for activation of the receptor in platelets. Occupancy of glycoprotein IIb-IIIa in the membranes with RGD (Arg-Gly-Asp)-containing peptides reversibly exposed neoantigenic epitopes and fibrinogen-binding sites in the receptor. These conformational changes required membrane fixation to be maintained following peptide removal. Similar results were obtained with purified glycoprotein IIb-IIIa incorporated into phospholipid vesicles, indicating that the resting state of the receptor is favoured in these environments. In contrast, when the conformation of detergent-solubilized glycoprotein IIb-IIIa was altered by exposure to RGD-containing peptides, the receptor remained active even after incorporation into phospholipid vesicles. These results demonstrate that platelet membranes are a useful model in which to study the regulation of glycoprotein IIb-IIIa and suggest that the environment surrounding the receptor may have a profound influence on this process.