The validity of the hypothesis that Factor Xa activates Factor V in heparinized plasma was examined by establishing the temporal relationships between Factor V proteolysis and prothrombin consumption in plasma. Factor V was cleaved into Factor Va heavy chain (approx. 110 kDa) and an intermediate (approx. 230 kDa) 30 s after CaCl2 was added to contact-activated plasma (CAP). The larger fragment was converted into Factor V activation peptide (approx. 150 kDa) and Factor Va light chain (approx. 80 kDa) 15 s later. Heparin (approx. 0.05 microM) delayed Factor V proteolysis in CAP by at least 30 s. On supplementing CAP with 1 nM-Factor Xa or 1 nM-thrombin, Factor V was activated 15 s later. Heparin prolonged by 15 s and 45 s the time required to demonstrate Factor V activation in CAP supplemented with Factor Xa and thrombin respectively. Factor V was activated 20 s after tissue factor and CaCl2 were added to plasma, both in the absence and in the presence of approx. 0.05 microM-heparin. In contrast, hirudin and D-Phe-Pro-Arg-CH2Cl (two thrombin inhibitors more effective than heparin) delayed Factor V activation in this plasma by at least 30 s. The fragments of Factor V obtained in heparinized CAP suggest thrombin escapes inhibition and contributes to Factor V activation in that plasma. Production of Factor Va heavy chain and the 230 kDa Factor V fragment invariably preceded efficient prothrombin activation. These observations suggest that heparin, hirudin and D-Phe-Pro-Arg-CH2Cl delay Factor V activation by inhibiting thrombin. The availability of Factor Xa markedly moderates the ability of heparin to inhibit Factor V activation.