In passive Heymann nephritis (PHN) in rats, antibody (anti-Fx1A) reacts in situ with a glomerular epithelial antigen and induces complement (C)-mediated cell-independent proteinuria. To assess the role of the membrane attack complex (MAC), we determined the need for C8 in the pathogenesis of proteinuria in an autologous-phase model of PHN. Isolated rat kidneys, containing nonnephritogenic, non-C-fixing gamma 2 sheep anti-Fx1A (planted antigen), when perfused in vitro with C-fixing guinea pig anti-sheep IgG and a source of C (fresh human plasma 50% vol/vol in buffer containing bovine serum albumin), developed marked proteinuria after 20 min (0.58 +/- 0.08 mg/min X g, n = 8) that increased further to 3.20 +/- 0.93 mg/min X g after 80 min. In contrast, identical kidneys perfused with antibody and heat-inactivated or C8-deficient human plasma and normal kidneys perfused with antibody and fresh plasma excreted only 0.27 +/- 0.03 (n = 6), 0.27 +/- 0.04 (n = 5), and 0.40 +/- 0.05 mg/min X g (n = 6) after 20 min, and 0.13 +/- 0.02, 0.22 +/- 0.03, and 0.32 +/- 0.05 mg/min X g after 80 min, respectively. When C8-deficient plasma was reconstituted with sources of C8 (n = 3), proteinuria was restored to the level observed with fresh normal plasma. Differences in protein excretion could not be explained by quantitative differences in glomerular antigen or antibody content. Extensive ultrastructural damage to glomerular visceral epithelial cells was exclusively seen in antigen-containing kidneys perfused with antibody and C8-replete plasma. Thus, glomerular injury in this model results from an antigen-specific, antibody-directed, C8-dependent reaction involving assembly of the MAC. The ultrastructural findings argue in favor of MAC-induced cytotoxicity of the glomerular visceral epithelial cells.