The present studies were initiated to investigate whether soluble immune complexes, upon interaction with complement, can bind to endothelial cells. Human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVE) were incubated with purified human 125I-labeled C1q at 4 degrees C in RPMI-0.5% bovine serum albumin and assayed for binding. Optimal binding of 125I-labeled C1q to HUVE was reached within 2 h, and saturation of binding was found at concentrations of 5 micrograms/well input. The binding of 125I-labeled C1q was inhibitable with unlabeled C1q and by the collagenous region of pepsin-cleaved C1q. No inhibition was observed with the globular heads of C1q, suggesting that C1q binds to HUVE via the collagenous region of C1q. When HUVE were first reacted with various concentrations of C1q, washed and subsequently incubated with 125I-labeled aggregated human IgM (AIgM), binding of 125I-labeled AIgM to HUVE occurred depending on the dose of C1q. Only those aggregates of IgM which react with C1q in a solid-phase C1q binding assay were able to bind to HUVE presensitized with C1q. In addition it was shown that C1q mediated binding of aggregated IgG to HUVE. Furthermore, immune complexes (IC), that were prepared with bovine thyroglobulin (BTg) and rabbit anti-BTg, bound to C1q-preincubated HUVE. These studies suggest that localization of IC on endothelium can be enhanced following interaction of the IC with complement.