Heparin catalyses the inhibition of two key enzymes of blood coagulation, namely Factor Xa and thrombin, by enhancing the antiproteinase activities of plasma antithrombin III and heparin cofactor II. In addition, heparin can directly inhibit the activation of Factor X and prothrombin. The contributions of each of these effects to the anticoagulant activity of heparin have not been delineated. We therefore performed experiments to assess how each of these effects of heparin contributes to its anticoagulant activity by comparing the effects of heparin, pentosan polysulphate and D-Phe-Pro-Arg-CH2Cl on the intrinsic pathway of coagulation. Unlike heparin, pentosan polysulphate catalyses only the inhibition of thrombin by plasma. D-Phe-Pro-Arg-CH2Cl is rapid enough an inhibitor of thrombin so that when added to plasma no complexes of thrombin with its inhibitors are formed, whether or not the plasma also contains heparin. Heparin (0.66 microgram/ml) and pentosan polysulphate (6.6 micrograms/ml) completely inhibited the intrinsic-pathway activation of 125I-prothrombin to 125I-prothrombin fragment 1 + 2 and 125I-thrombin. On the addition of thrombin, a good Factor V activator, to the plasma before each sulphated polysaccharide, the inhibition of prothrombin activation was demonstrable only in the presence of higher concentrations of the sulphated polysaccharide. D-Phe-Pro-Arg-CH2Cl also completely inhibited the intrinsic-pathway activation of prothrombin in normal plasma. The inhibitory effect of D-Phe-Pro-Arg-CH2Cl was reversed if thrombin was added to the plasma before D-Phe-Pro-Arg-CH2Cl. The inhibition of the activation of prothrombin by the three agents was also abolished with longer times with re-added Ca2+. Reversal of the inhibitory effects of heparin and pentosan polysulphate was associated with the accelerated formation of 125I-thrombin-antithrombin III and 125I-thrombin-heparin cofactor complexes respectively. These results suggest that the anticoagulant effects of heparin and pentosan polysulphate are mediated primarily by their ability to inhibit the thrombin-dependent activation of Factor V, thereby inhibiting the formation of prothrombinase complex, the physiological activator of prothrombin.