Deuterostome invertebrates possess complement genes, and in limited instances complement-mediated functions have been reported in these organisms. However, the organization of the complement pathway(s), as well as the functions exerted by the cloned gene products, are largely unknown. To address the issue of the presence of an inflammatory pathway in ascidians, we expressed in Escherichia coli the fragment of Ciona intestinalis C3-1 corresponding to mammalian complement C3a (rCiC3-1a) and assessed its chemotactic activity on C. intestinalis hemocytes. We found that the migration of C. intestinalis hemocytes toward rCiC3-1a was dose dependent, peaking at 500 nM, and was specific for CiC3-1a, being inhibited by an anti-rCiC3-1a-specific Ab. As is true for mammalian C3a, the chemotactic activity of C. intestinalis C3-1a was localized to the C terminus, because a peptide representing the 18 C-terminal amino acids (CiC3-1a(59-76)) also promoted hemocyte chemotaxis. Furthermore, the CiC3-1a terminal Arg was not crucial for chemotactic activity, because the desArg peptide (CiC3-1a(59-75)) retained most of the directional hemocyte migration activity. The CiC3-1a-mediated chemotaxis was inhibited by pretreatment of cells with pertussis toxin, suggesting that the receptor molecule mediating the chemotactic effect is G(i) protein coupled. Immunohistochemical analysis with anti-rCiC3-1a-specific Ab and in situ hybridization experiments with a riboprobe corresponding to the 3'-terminal sequence of CiC3-1, performed on tunic sections of LPS-injected animals, showed that a majority of the infiltrating labeled hemocytes were granular amebocytes and compartment cells. Our findings indicate that CiC3-1a mediates chemotaxis of C. intestinalis hemocytes, thus suggesting an important role for this molecule in inflammatory processes.