Type 1 plasminogen activator inhibitor (PAI-1), the primary inhibitor of tissue-type plasminogen activator (t-PA), circulates as a complex with the abundant plasma glycoprotein, vitronectin. This interaction stabilizes the inhibitor in its active conformation In this report, the effects of vitronectin on the interactions of PAI-1 with fibrin clots were studied. Confocal microscopic imaging of platelet-poor plasma clots reveals that essentially all fibrin-associated PAI-1 colocalizes with fibrin-bound vitronectin. Moreover, formation of platelet-poor plasma clots in the presence of polyclonal antibodies specific for vitronectin attenuated the inhibitory effects of PAI-1 on t-PA-mediated fibrinolysis. Addition of vitronectin during clot formation markedly potentiates PAI-1-mediated inhibition of lysis of (125)I-labeled fibrin clots by t-PA. This effect is dependent on direct binding interactions of vitronectin with fibrin. There is no significant effect of fibrin-associated vitronectin on fibrinolysis in the absence of PAI-1. The binding of PAI-1 to fibrin clots formed in the absence of vitronectin was characterized by a low affinity (K(d) approximately 3.5 micrometer) and rapid loss of PAI-1 inhibitory activity over time. In contrast, a high affinity and stabilization of PAI-1 activity characterized the cooperative binding of PAI-1 to fibrin formed in the presence of vitronectin. These findings indicate that plasma PAI-1.vitronectin complexes can be localized to the surface of fibrin clots; by this localization, they may modulate fibrinolysis and clot reorganization.