We report here that complement receptor type one (CR1) binds to a region of C3b that is contained within the NH2 terminus of the alpha' chain. In an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, CR1 bound to C3b, iC3b, and C3c but not to C3d, and this binding was inhibited by soluble C3b and C3c. Further attempts to generate a small C3 fragment capable of binding CR1 were unsuccessful. However, elastase degradation of C3 generated four species of C3c (C3c I-IV), two of which bound CR1. NH2-terminal sequence analysis and sodium dodecyl sulfate-gel electrophoresis of the C3cs indicated that the beta chains and the 40,000-dalton COOH-terminal alpha' chain fragments were identical; the NH2-terminal alpha' chain fragments of C3c I-IV varied from 21,000 to 27,000 daltons and accounted for the differential binding to CR1. C3c-I and II, which do not bind CR1, were missing 8 and 9 residues from the NH2 terminus of the alpha' chain when compared with the intact alpha' chain of C3b. C3c-III and IV, which bind CR1, had NH2 termini identical to the intact NH2-terminal alpha' chain of C3b. Using iodinated concanavalin A and endoglycosidase H, we showed that the NH2-terminal alpha' chains of C3c-I and III were glycosylated, while C3c-II and IV were not. Therefore, these data indicated that the amino terminus of the NH2-terminal alpha' chain fragment of C3c was responsible for binding CR1 while the COOH terminus of this fragment was not involved since the presence or absence of this region in C3c did not affect CR1 binding to C3c. Subsequently, two peptides were synthesized from the NH2-terminal alpha' chain fragment of C3c: X42, 42 residues in length from the NH2 terminus and C30, 30 residues in length from the COOH terminus. X42 inhibited binding of CR1 to C3b, and this effect was also observed with antipeptide antibodies against the X42 peptide. The C30 and other C3-derived peptides and antipeptide antibodies had no effect on the binding of CR1 to C3b.