Rat oligodendrocytes, which activate the classical pathway of complement in the absence of antibody, are highly sensitive in a reactive lysis assay using human C5b6 and EDTA serum. Oligodendrocytes may be relatively deficient in glycolipid-linked complement regulatory protein(s), since digestion with phosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase C (PI-PLC) failed to increase their sensitivity to serum, whereas complement-insensitive astrocytes, when treated with PI-PLC, became strikingly sensitive. To test the hypothesis that oligodendrocytes lack terminal complement regulatory molecule(s), human erythrocyte CD59, a recently described complement regulatory protein, was purified to homogeneity. The biological activity of the preparation was confirmed by reincorporating the protein into guinea-pig erythrocytes through its glycolipid anchor, which resulted in dose-dependent protection against human C5b6 and EDTA serum. Incorporation of 10(5) molecules of human CD59 into rat oligodendrocytes resulted in good protection against homologous human complement (76%), and significant protection against rat complement homologous to the cell (36%). Protection could be reversed using an antibody to CD59.