In 1985 we isolated a new vascular anticoagulant protein VAC-alpha, now called annexin V, with a high binding affinity (K(d) < 10(-10) M) for phospholipids. Its anticoagulant effect was attributed to displacement of coagulation factors from the phospholipid membrane. The present study demonstrates that the inhibition of prothrombinase activity by annexin V strongly depends on the curvature of the membrane surface and on the calcium concentration. Half-maximal inhibition of prothrombinase on and binding of annexin V to small vesicles, composed of 20% phosphatidylserine and 80% phosphatidylcholine, requires 2-3 mm calcium. With large vesicles and planar bilayers considerably less calcium is required for inhibition of prothrombinase and for lipid binding. Half-maximal binding of annexin V to large vesicles and to planar bilayers occurs at 0.7 and 0.2 mm calcium, respectively. This seemingly confirms the displacement model. The displacement of coagulation factors, however, proved to be incomplete, with residual surface concentrations of factors Xa, Va, and prothrombin sufficient for effective production of thrombin. Cryoelectron microscopy revealed that annexin V binding to large vesicles caused planar facets, indicating the formation of large sheets of clustered annexin V. Apparently, the formation of these two-dimensional arrays is promoted by calcium and hampered by high surface curvature. It is speculated that the complete inhibition (>99%) of prothrombinase activity by annexin V is caused by the reduced lateral mobility of prothrombin and factor Xa in rigid sheets of annexin V covering the membrane.