Elementary bodies (EB) of Chlamydia trachomatis serotypes C, E, and L2 were extrinsically radioiodinated, and whole-cell lysates of these serotypes were compared by sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE). Autoradiography of the polypeptide profiles identified a major surface protein with an apparent subunit molecular weight of 39,500 that was common to each C. trachomatis serotype. The abilities of nonionic (Triton X-100), dipolar ionic (Zwittergent TM-314), mild (sodium deoxycholate and sodium N-lauroyl sarcosine), and strongly anionic (SDS) detergents to extract this protein from intact EB of the L2 serotype were investigated by SDS-PAGE analysis of the soluble and insoluble fractions obtained after each detergent treatment. Only SDS readily extracted this protein from intact EB. Sarkosyl treatment selectively solubilized the majority of other EB proteins, leaving the 39,500-dalton protein associated with the Sarkosyl-insoluble fraction. Ultrastructural studies of the Sarkosyl-insoluble EB pellet showed it to consist of empty EB particles possessing an apparently intact outer membrane. No structural evidence for a peptidoglycan-like cell wall was found. Morphologically these chlamydial outer membrane complexes (COMC) resembled intact chlamydial EB outer membranes. The 39,500-dalton outer membrane protein was quantitatively extracted from COMC by treating them with 2% SDS at 60 degrees C. This protein accounted for 61% of the total COMC-associated protein, and its extraction resulted in a concomitant loss of the COMC membrane structure and morphology. The soluble extract obtained from SDS-treated COMC was adsorbed to a hydroxylapatite column and eluted with a linear sodium phosphate gradient. The 39,500-dalton protein was eluted from the column as a single peak at a phosphate concentration of approximately 0.3 M. The eluted protein was nearly homogeneous by SDS-PAGE and appeared free of contaminating carbohydrate, glycolipid, and nucleic acid. Hyperimmune mouse antiserum prepared against the 39,500-dalton protein from serotype L2 reacted with C. trachomatis serotypes Ba, E, D, K, L1, L2, and L3 by indirect immunofluorescence with EB but failed to react with serotypes A, B, C, F, G, H, I, and J, with the C. trachomatis mouse pneumonitis strain, or with the C. psittaci feline pneumonitis, guinea pig inclusion conjunctivitis, or 6BC strains. Thus, the 39,500-dalton major outer membrane protein is a serogroup antigen of C. trachomatis organisms.