Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT) is an important complication of heparin therapy. Although there is general agreement that platelet activation in vitro by the HIT IgG is mediated by the platelet Fc receptor, the interaction among the antibody, heparin, and platelet membrane components is uncertain and debated. In this report, we describe studies designed to address these interactions. We found, as others have noted, that a variety of other sulfated polysaccharides could substitute for heparin in the reaction. Using polysaccharides selected for both size and charge, we found that reactivity depended on two independent factors: a certain minimum degree of sulfation per saccharide unit and a certain minimum size. Hence, highly sulfated but small (< 1,000 daltons) polysaccharides were not reactive nor were large but poorly sulfated polysaccharides. The ability of HIT IgG to recognize heparin by itself was tested by Ouchterlony gel diffusion, ammonium sulfate and polyethylene glycol precipitation, and equilibrium dialysis. No technique demonstrated reactivity. However, when platelet releasate was added to heparin and HIT IgG, a 50-fold increase in binding of radio-labeled heparin to HIT IgG was observed. The releasate was then depleted of proteins capable of binding to heparin by immunoaffinity chromatography. Only platelet factor 4-immunodepleted releasate lost its reactivity with HIT IgG and heparin. Finally, to determine whether the reaction occurred on the surface of platelets or in the fluid phase, washed platelets were incubated with HIT IgG or heparin and after a wash step, heparin or HIT IgG was added, respectively. Reactivity was only noted when platelets were preincubated with heparin. Consistent with these observations was the demonstration of the presence of PF4 on platelets using flow cytometry. These studies indicate that heparin and other large, highly sulfated polysaccharides bind to PF4 to form a reactive antigen on the platelet surface. HIT IgG then binds to this complex with activation of platelets through the platelet Fc receptors.