Molecular forms of plasminogen activator inhibitor-1 (PAI-1) and tissue-type plasminogen activator (t-PA), identified by gel filtration and specific immunoassays, were studied in plasma from subjects with normal and elevated PAI-1 levels before and after in vitro or in vivo addition of t-PA. In normal plasma, PAI-1 occurs in three molecular forms, a Mr greater than 700 KDa inactive form of heterogeneous composition, an active 450 KDa form containing PAI-1/vitronectin complex and an inactive peak at Mr 50 KDa containing free PAI-1. Stimulation of platelets results in a significant increase of the 50 KDA form and a slight increase of the 450 KDa form. Patients with increased PAI activity levels have an increase of both the 450 KDa and the 50 KDa forms, whereas patients with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura have an increased 50 KDa form. In normal plasma, collected in the presence or absence of D-Phe-Pro-Arg-CH2Cl, t-PA occurs primarily as a Mr greater than 700 KDa form containing t-PA/PAI-1 complex. Addition of high concentrations of t-PA (70 ng/ml) to plasma in vitro or t-PA injection in vivo, results in t-PA inhibitor complexes, including t-PA/ alpha 2 antiplasmin. It is concluded that in subjects with increased PAI-1 levels in plasma, PAI-1 may occur as high molecular weight complexes with vitronectin of which 450 KDa was the most important part and as a 50 KDa inactive form; t-PA circulates primarily in complex with inhibitors. Thus, some of the molecular interactions between PAI-1, t-PA and vitronectin, previously demonstrated in purified systems in vitro, also occur in plasma.