The binding of affinity-purified anticardiolipin antibodies (ACA) to liposomes that contained cardiolipin or phosphatidylserine was investigated. ACA bound to these liposomes only in the presence of plasma or serum, which indicated a requirement for a plasma component. This component--referred to as aca-cofactor--was purified; its activity to support ACA binding to liposomes that contained cardiolipin was not destroyed by heat (10 min at 90 degrees C), but was greatly diminished on incubation with trypsin. aca-cofactor bound liposomes that contained negatively charged phospholipid but had no affinity for liposomes that contained neutral phospholipid (eg, phosphatidylcholine); this binding was independent of calcium ions. aca-cofactor was essential for ACA to bind to liposomes that contained cardiolipin or phosphatidylserine and, when coated on a microtitre plate in the absence of any phospholipid, aca-cofactor was an apparent antigen for ACA in an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. aca-cofactor is a single chain polypeptide with an apparent molecular weight of 50 kD (non-reduced), which increases to 70 kD upon reduction, and its properties closely resemble those of beta 2-glycoprotein I (apolipoprotein H).