Sequences of antigenic determinants were identified by limited proteolysis of peptide antigens bound to an immobilized monoclonal antibody and direct molecular weight determination of the monoclonal antibody-bound peptide fragments by 252Cf plasma desorption mass spectrometry. The epitope peptides to the monoclonal antibody h453 [Burger, R., Zilow, G., Bader, A., Friedlein, A. & Naser, W. (1988) J. Immunol. 141, 553-558] were isolated from immobilized antigen-antibody complexes by partial trypsin digestion. A synthetic eicosapeptide comprised of the C-terminal sequence of the human complement component polypeptide des-Arg77-C3a as well as guinea pig des-Arg78-C3a was used as an antigen. Conditions were developed under which trypsin specifically degraded the antigens without inactivation of the immobilized antibody. After proteolysis, epitope peptides were dissociated from the antibody with 4 M MgCl2. The antigenic peptides were purified by HPLC and identified by 252Cf plasma desorption mass spectrometry. The epitope recognized by h453 resides on the C-terminal tryptic peptides of human (residues 70-76) and guinea pig (residues 70-77) C3a. As an estimation of accuracy this method is able to provide, trypsin digestion of immune complexes caused cleavage of the antigen within a distance of two amino acid residues upstream from the epitope.