The consequences of assembling the contact system of proteins on the surface of vascular cells has received little study. We asked whether assembly of these proteins on the surface of cultured human endothelial cells (HUVECs) results in the activation of prekallikrein (PK) and its dependent pathways. Biotinylated PK binds specifically and reversibly to HUVECs in the presence of high molecular weight kininogen (HK) (apparent Kd of 23 +/- 11 nmol/L, Bmax of 1.7 +/- 0.5 x 10(7) sites per cell [mean +/- SD, n = 5 experiments]). Cell-associated PK is rapidly converted to kallikrein. Surprisingly, the activation of cell-associated HK.PK complexes is entirely independent of exogenous factor XII (Km = 30 nmol/L, Vmax = 12 +/- 3 pmol/L/min in the absence v Km = 20 nmol/L, Vmax = 9.2 +/- 2.1 pmol/L/min in the presence of factor XII). Rather, kallikrein formation is mediated by an endothelial cell-associated, thiol protease. Cell-associated HK is proteolyzed during the course of prekallikrein activation, releasing kallikrein from the surface. Furthermore, activation of PK bound to HK on HUVECs promotes kallikrein-dependent activation of pro-urokinase, resulting in the formation of plasmin. These results indicate the existence of a previously undescribed, factor XII-independent pathway for contact factor activation on HUVECs that regulates the production of bradykinin and may contribute to cell-associated plasminogen activation in vivo.