In this study we show that platelet activating factor (PAF) activates PI 3-kinase over a rapid time course that correlates closely with the aggregation response. Tyrosine kinases are involved in this response, since there is increased PI 3-kinase activity associated with tyrosine-phosphorylated proteins. PI 3-kinase inhibitors were used to probe the dependence of PAF-induced aggregation on PI 3-kinase. Both wortmannin and LY-294002 inhibited PAF-induced aggregation that correlated with PI 3-kinase inhibition only when using lower concentrations of PAF giving reversible aggregation (primary phase). Similar results were obtained with human platelets using thrombin or thrombin receptor activating peptide. The same pattern of response was observed when activation of GPIIbIIIa was assessed by flow cytometry, i.e., PI 3-kinase inhibitors blocked integrin activation only when lower concentrations of agonist were used. We suggest that PI 3-kinase is important for reversible (primary) aggregation of platelets in response to PAF or thrombin, perhaps by contributing to the 'inside-out' activation of the platelet integrin GPIIbIIIa, only when submaximal concentrations of agonists are used. The lack of effect of PI 3-kinase inhibitors, when high concentrations of agonist are used, suggests that PI 3-kinase-independent pathways contribute to aggregation under these conditions.