Activation of prothrombin (Pro) by factor Xa to form thrombin occurs by proteolysis of Arg271-Thr272 and Arg320-Ile321, resulting in expression of regulatory exosites I and II. Cleavage of Pro by thrombin liberates fragment 1 and generates the zymogen analog, prethrombin 1 (Pre 1). The properties of exosite I on Pre 1 and its factor Xa activation intermediates were characterized in spectroscopic and equilibrium binding studies using the fluorescein-labeled probe, hirudin(54-65) ([5F]Hir(54-65)-(SO3-)). Prethrombin 2 (Pre 2), formed by factor Xa cleavage of Pre 1 at Arg271-Thr272, had the same affinity for hirudin(54-65) peptides as Pre 1 in the absence or presence of near-saturating fragment 2 (F2). Pre 2 and thrombin also had indistinguishable affinities for F2. By contrast, cleavage of Pre 1 at Arg320-Ile321, to form active meizothrombin des-fragment 1 MzT(-F1), showed a 11- to 20-fold increase in affinity for hirudin(54-65), indistinguishable from the 13- to 20-fold increase seen for conversion of Pre 2 to thrombin. Thus, factor Xa cleavage of Pre 1 at Arg271-Thr272 does not effect exosite I expression, whereas cleavage at Arg320-Ile321 results in concomitant activation of the catalytic site and exosite I. Furthermore, expression of exosite I on the Pre 1 activation intermediates is not modulated by F2, and exosite II is not activated conformationally. The differential expression of exosite I affinity on the Pre 1 activation intermediates and the previously demonstrated role of (pro)exosite I in factor Va-dependent substrate recognition suggest that changes in exosite I expression may regulate the rate and direction of the Pre 1 activation pathway.