Membrane cofactor protein (MCP, CD46) is an integral protein that serves as a cofactor for factor I in inactivating C3b/C4b deposited on the same cell membrane as C3bi/C4c+C4d. This C3b/C4b inactivation is closely associated with self-protection of host cells from autologous complement attack. We have studied the distribution and properties of MCP in the normal human kidney by immunohistochemical and immunoblotting methods using monoclonal antibodies against MCP. MCP was predominantly expressed on the juxtaglomerular apparatus. Glomerular capillary walls, mesangial areas, and tubulus were also MCP positive. Glomerulus MCP was composed of two major bands of 45-65 kDa, which were similar to those of lymphocyte MCP. The proportion of the high and low molecular weight components in glomerulus MCP, however, was considerably different from that of lymphocyte MCP among the individual samples tested. Glomerular epithelial cells and mesangial cells from an individual having equal amounts of high and low molecular weight components in the lymphocytes were cultured separately and the properties of their MCP investigated. MCP in the mesangial cells and glomerular epithelial cells showed profiles in which the upper band was predominant. The results may explain the unique distribution of the high and low molecular weight forms in the glomerulus. These forms of MCP together with factor I were all capable of inactivating C3b to C3bi. Message analysis suggested that glomerular epithelial cells and mesangial cells synthesized a single species of mRNA of 4.2 kb from which the polymorphic MCP species were generated. Flow cytometric analysis suggested that MCP was minimal in mesangial cells. These results, taken together with the previous reports on the distribution of other complement regulatory proteins, infer that the distribution profile of MCP is rather similar to that of DAF but differs from those of CD59 and CR1 in the normal human kidney; this may reflect the differences between their roles or functional properties in renal tissue.