R24, an IgG3 mouse monoclonal antibody reactive with the disialoganglioside GD3, was found to be a potent mediator of human complement cytotoxicity and human effector cell cytotoxicity. Cytotoxicity correlated with the degree of antibody binding (GD3 cell surface expression) for each of the melanoma cell lines and melanocyte cell cultures tested. Melanoma cell lines binding low amounts of R24 (low GD3 cell surface expressors) were not lysed in R24-directed immune reactions, suggesting that a threshold number of R24 molecules bound per cell is necessary to initiate these cytotoxic mechanisms. Since both complement- and cell-mediated reactions lysed the same subpopulations of cells in each cell line, both mechanisms appeared to depend on similar threshold quantities of bound R24 molecules. However, due to the heterogeneity of R24 binding in each cell line, the numerical value for this threshold could not be determined. Only in cell lines binding greater than 10(7) R24 molecules per cell were greater than 90% of the cells lysed. Normal melanocytes in culture were not lysed by R24-directed immune mechanisms, due to their low GD3 expression, indicating that monoclonal antibodies such as R24 may show tumor specificity with regard to effector functions even though normal cells express the relevant antigen. In contrast to the potent in vitro activity of R24, treatment of nu/nu mice bearing human melanoma grafts resulted in tumor inhibition only when started within 3 days of tumor cell inoculation. No effect was seen on established tumors. Thus, this in vivo mouse model failed to predict the clinical and pathological findings observed in treatment trials of R24 in human melanoma patients--urticaria involving skin metastases, cellular infiltration of tumor tissue, and tumor regression. In addition to activating immunologic effector functions, R24 had direct effects on melanoma cells, blocking their ability to attach to surfaces and causing tumor cell aggregation. These effects were again related to the number of R24 molecules bound to the cell surface; no aggregation was seen with cell lines binding less than 4 X 10(5) molecules per cell. Both immune and nonimmune effector functions may be involved in the tumor inhibitory activity of R24 in humans.