The third component of complement (C3) plays a critical role in both pathways of complement activation by interacting with numerous other complement proteins. To elucidate the molecular features of C3 that relate to the functional activities of the molecule, we expressed the cDNA of human complement component C3 in cultured insect cells using a baculovirus expression vector system derived from the baculovirus Autographa california nuclear polyhedrosis virus (AcNPV). The expression of C3 was controlled by the promoter of the polyhedrin gene and, when recombinant baculovirus infected insect cells were cultured in serum-free medium, C3 was detected at a level of 10 micrograms/ml of culture medium. Characterization of the recombinant C3 (rC3) by SDS-PAGE revealed that the C3 gene product was translated as a 188 kDa protein comprised of two chains of 115 kDa and 73 kDa analogous to the alpha and beta chains of serum-derived human C3 (sC3). An analysis of the glycosylation pattern of purified rC3 revealed that, whereas both the alpha and beta chains were glycosylated as in sC3, the proC3 moiety of rC3 also was glycosylated. When rC3 was produced in the High Five cell line of insect cells and evaluated for reactivity with a panel of anti-C3 monoclonal antibodies (MoAb), the results suggested that the conformation of the baculovirus expressed C3 was similar to that of native C3. When the rC3 was purified by anion exchange column chromatography, it was able to react with several C3-binding proteins (CR1, P and H), reconstitute C3-deficient serum and support the activation of both complement pathways thus demonstrating that a baculovirus-expressed C3 can participate in the formation of and can be cleaved by both the classical and alternative pathway convertases. Incubation of rC3 with factor I and H revealed that both C3 and proC3 are susceptible to cleavage by factor I.