Defective clearance of immune complexes (IC) may contribute to the pathogenesis of diseases such as SLE. We studied the effect of hypocomplementaemia and the influence of erythrocyte complement receptor type 1 (CR1, CD35) number on the clearance of radiolabelled tetanus toxoid (TT)-anti-TT IC from the circulation. These were injected intravenously into 9 normal subjects and 15 patients with diseases characterized by IC formation and/or hypocomplementemia, including 2 with hereditary complement deficiency. IC were found to bind to erythrocyte CR1 in a complement-dependent manner and their degree of uptake was directly correlated with CR1 numbers. Two phases of IC clearance were identified. The first was rapid, occurring within 1 min. Since this phase might represent inappropriate deposition of IC in target organs we called it trapping. It was seen predominantly in subjects with low CR1, low complement, and low binding of complexes to red cells. The second phase was monoexponential with a mean elimination rate of 14.1%/min; it was inversely correlated with CR1 numbers and binding of complexes to red cells. In a second study each individual was injected with IC bound to autologous erythrocytes in vitro using normal serum so that the effects of complement deficiency were eliminated. Up to 81.4% of these bound IC were released in vivo from erythrocytes in 1 min, and the proportion was inversely correlated with CR1 numbers. Only five patients showed trapping, and these had low CR1 numbers and high percentage release of IC. The second phase of elimination was inversely correlated with CR1 numbers and the proportion of IC remaining bound to red cells at 1 min. The two complement-deficient patients had normal CR1: when IC were injected, trapping and very fast clearance rates were observed; however complexes that had been opsonized and bound to erythrocytes were cleared at a slower rate without evidence for trapping. These studies show that complement and erythrocyte CR1 may determine the physiological clearance of certain types of IC and suggest that this system may function abnormally when CR1 number or complement function are reduced.