Trypsin treatment of human factor H (H160) [enzyme/substrate ratio 1:100 (w/w), 30 min, 37 degrees C] generated a 38 kDa (H38) and a 142 kDa (H142) fragment linked by disulphide bonds (H38/142). The fragments were purified by reduction with 2-mercapto-ethanol, gel filtration on a Sephadex G-200 column and affinity chromatography with monoclonal anti-(factor H) antibody coupled to Sepharose 4B. This monoclonal antibody bound to a site in the 38 kDa fragment. To localize the C3b binding site in factor H we used two enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (e.l.i.s.a.). For the first test, e.l.i.s.a. plates were coated with C3b; H160, H38/142, H38 and H142 were added, and their binding was monitored by goat anti-(factor H) and peroxidase-labelled rabbit anti-goat antibodies. Only intact factor H bound to the C3b-coated plates. For the second test, e.l.i.s.a. plates were coated with comparable amounts of factor H or its fragments, and C3b was offered at several dilutions. In contrast with the results from the first assay, C3b bound to intact factor H, H38/142 and H38 but not to H142, thus characterizing H38 as the fragment carrying the C3b-binding site. To identify the fragment responsible for the cofactor activity of factor H (cleavage of fluid-phase C3b by factor I), 125I-C3b was incubated with either H38 or H142 and factor I. H142 had no cofactor activity, whereas H38 had the same cofactor function as intact H. To further investigate the relationship between the C3b-binding site and the site of factor H essential for its cofactor activity, we made use of monoclonal antibodies directed against the H38. Those antibodies inhibiting the binding of C3b to H160 also inhibited the cofactor function, whereas those without effect on the C3b binding also did not interfere with the cofactor activity. This suggests that the C3b-binding site and the site essential for the cofactor activity of factor H are both localized in the 38 kDa tryptic fragment of factor H in close proximity or are identical.