The localization of the membrane attack complex of complement (MAC) was examined in the normal human kidneys and in biopsy specimens from patients with primary IgA nephropathy by immunofluorescent and immunoelectron microscopies. Immunofluorescent staining for MAC was significantly more intense than in the normal kidneys, and was observed in the mesangium and occasionally along the glomerular capillary walls of 22 of 30 patients with IgA nephropathy. By dual-staining, the MAC deposits were generally concordant with the deposits of IgA, C3, C5 and C9, or of IgG, when present. C1q or C4 was infrequently observed in the glomeruli. Immunoelectron microscopy revealed various staining patterns of glomerular MAC deposition; homogeneous fine-granular staining beneath the glomerular basement membrane (GBM) in the paramesangial zone, patchy staining within the mesangial electron dense deposits (EDD), and ring-shaped or ribbon-like staining, associated with the striated membrane structures (SMS), in the matrix of the mesangium, GBM and tubular basement membrane (TBM). This study suggests that the terminal complement system is activated, mainly by an alternative complement pathway mechanism, in the mesangium of IgA nephropathy, and is associated with the paramesangial lesion and EDD. MAC deposition in glomerular SMS may also result from in situ activation rather than trapping from the circulation. There was little correlation between glomerular MAC deposition and proteinuria or renal histology of patients with IgA nephropathy.