Fibronectin is a large vertebrate glycoprotein that is found in soluble and insoluble forms and involved in diverse processes. Protomeric fibronectin is a dimer of subunits, each of which comprises 29-31 modules - 12 type I, two type II and 15-17 type III. Plasma fibronectin is secreted by hepatocytes and circulates in a compact conformation before it binds to cell surfaces, converts to an extended conformation and is assembled into fibronectin fibrils. Here we review biophysical and structural studies that have shed light on how plasma fibronectin transitions from the compact to the extended conformation. The three types of modules each have a well-organized secondary and tertiary structure as defined by NMR and crystallography and have been likened to "beads on a string". There are flexible sequences in the N-terminal tail, between the fifth and sixth type I modules, between the first two and last two of the type III modules, and at the C-terminus. Several specific module-module interactions have been identified that likely maintain the compact quaternary structure of circulating fibronectin. The quaternary structure is perturbed in response to binding events, including binding of fibronectin to the surface of vertebrate cells for fibril assembly and to bacterial adhesins.