We have investigated the effect of hypocomplementemia on early pulmonary clearance of four species of bacteria. The experiments were performed in an inbred animal model to minimize immunologic variability. Complement was depleted by cobra venom factor, and activity in serum was monitored with a phagocytic assay. Bacterial specific antibodies were examined by an indirect radioimmunoassay, and animals with high levels of activity were excluded from anaysis. 4 h after aerosolization with Streptococcus pneumoniae, complement-depleted animals had cleared only 75% of the initial number of organisms, whereas saline-treated controls cleared 91% (P less than 0.01). Aerosolization with Pseudomonas aeruginosa was followed at 4 h by a twofold greater growth of organisms in the complement-depleted animals (446% of original deposition) as compared to the saline-treated controls (211% of original deposition) (P less than 0.02). Clearance of Klebsiella pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus were similar in complement-depleted animals and saline-treated controls. These experiments suggest that hypocomplementemia predisposes to bacterial pneumonia and may explain the high incidence of pulmonary infections in patients having impaired complement activity. Our results further indicate that varying defense mechanisms may be involved with clearing the lung of differing bacterial species.