Heparan with a low affinity for antithrombin III has previously been demonstrated to inhibit thrombin generation in both normal plasma and plasma depleted of antithrombin III. In addition, standard heparin and heparin with a low affinity for antithrombin III have been demonstrated to have equivalent inhibitory actions on thrombin generation in plasma depleted of antithrombin III. These observations prompted the investigation of the effects of four normal vessel wall glycosaminoglycans (heparan sulfate, dermatan sulfate, chondroitin-4- sulfate, and chondroitin-6-sulfate) on the intrinsic pathway generation of thrombin and factor Xa and on the inactivation of thrombin and factor Xa in plasma. Heparan sulfate inhibited thrombin generation and accelerated the inactivation of added thrombin and factor Xa in normal plasma but not in antithrombin III-depleted plasma. In contrast, dermatan sulfate inhibited thrombin generation in both normal and antithrombin III-depleted plasma. In addition, heparan sulfate was an effective inhibitor of factor Xa generation, while dermatan sulfate was not. Neither chondroitin-4-sulfate nor chondroitin-6-sulfate inhibited the generation of thrombin or factor Xa nor did they accelerate the inactivation of factor Xa or thrombin by plasma. These results suggest that heparan sulfate acts primarily by potentiating antithrombin III, while dermatan sulfate acts by potentiating heparin cofactor II. The inhibition of thrombin generation by heparan sulfate and dermatan sulfate thus appears to occur by complementary pathways, both of which may contribute to the anticoagulation of blood in vivo.