C4b and C3b deposited on host cells undergo limited proteolytic cleavage by regulatory proteins. Membrane cofactor protein (MCP; CD46), factor H, and C4b binding protein mediate this reaction, known as cofactor activity, that also requires the plasma serine protease factor I. To explore the roles of the fluid phase regulators vs those expressed on host cells, a model system was used examining complement fragments deposited on cells transfected with human MCP as assessed by FACS and Western blotting. Following incubation with Ab and complement on MCP(+) cells, C4b was progressively cleaved over the first hour to C4d and C4c. There was no detectable cleavage of C4b on MCP(-) cells, indicating that MCP (and not C4BP in the serum) primarily mediates this cofactor activity. C3b deposition was not blocked on MCP(+) cells because classical pathway activation occurred before substantial C4b cleavage. Cleavage, though, of deposited C3b was rapid (<5 min) and iC3b was the dominant fragment on MCP(-) and MCP(+) cells. Studies using a function-blocking mAb further established factor H as the responsible cofactor. If the level of Ab sensitization was reduced 8-fold or if Mg(2+)-EGTA was used to block the classical pathway, MCP efficiently inhibited C3b deposition mediated by the alternative pathway. Thus, for the classical pathway, MCP is the cofactor for C4b cleavage and factor H for C3b cleavage. However, if the alternative pathway mediates C3b deposition, then MCP's cofactor activity is sufficient to restrict complement activation.