The presence and localization of the C5b-9 neoantigens of the terminal complement sequence, of antigens expressed by cleavage fragments of C3, and of Factor H antigens have been studied by immunohistochemical techniques in morphologically normal adult human kidneys and in biopsy specimens from patients with a wide range of renal diseases with and without immune deposits. In morphologically normal kidneys, C5b-9 neoantigens were observed within all connective matrices (arteriolar media, glomerular basement membrane (GBM), mesangial matrix and tubular basement membrane). The C3d and C3g antigens of the C3dg, and C3bi cleavage fragments of C3 and Factor H antigens were found in similar locations. None of the matrices stained for immunoglobulins. Immunoelectron microscopy demonstrated that C3d, C3g, H antigens and the C5b-9 neoantigens were localized on membranous and vesicular structures embedded in the connective matrices. These structures represent cell membranes shed from adjacent cells as evidenced by their ultrastructural appearance and by the fact that those which were in close vicinity to pedicles within the GBM expressed the C3b receptor antigen, a specific marker for podocyte membranes. Formation of C5b-9 complexes in the shielded environment of connective matrices may explain their persistence over long periods of time in the absence of apparent immunopathological consequences. Biopsies from pathological kidneys were classified into three groups based on the pattern of glomerular staining with anti-C5b-9 antibodies. In the first group, a sparse mesangial labeling was seen, similar to that observed in normal kidneys. In the second group, abundant clusters of C5b-9 were seen in the same location as immune deposits. Activation of the complement system to completion could be documented in the absence of detectable C3 (C3c) antigen in glomeruli. Immunoelectron microscopy demonstrated that C5b-9 neoantigens were present on cell remnants in connective matrices in all specimens that were studied. Labeled cell remnants were present in large amounts in sclerotic matrices. C5b-9 neoantigens were constantly found on old and large immune deposits, and absent or occasionally present on recent and small immune deposits. In membranous nephropathy stage I, proteinuria appeared to be independent of the presence or absence of detectable C5b-9 neoantigens on immune deposits. Thus, the presence of C5b-9 neoantigens in pathological renal tissue does not have an univocal significance, and requires analysis of the localization of the antigens and appropriate controls in order to assess the potential role of C5b-9 in tissue damage.