Microglial cells respond to most pathological events by rapid transformation from a quiescent to an activated phenotype characterized by increased cytotoxicity and motile activity. To investigate the regulation of microglial motility by different inflammatory mediators, we studied cultured murine microglia by time-lapse video microscopy and a computer-based motility assay. Microglial cells exhibited a high resting motility. The acute application of complement 5a (C5a) immediately induced intense ruffling of microglial membranes followed by lamellipodia extension within few seconds, while formyl-Met-Leu-Phe-OH, bacterial endotoxin (lipopolysaccharide) or inflammatory cytokines did not increase motility. This process was accompanied by a rapid rearrangement of the actin cytoskeleton as demonstrated by labelling with fluorescein isothiocyanate-phalloidin and could be inhibited by cytochalasin B. A GTP-binding protein was involved in the signal cascade, since pertussis toxin inhibited motility and actin assembly in response to C5a. Chemotactic migration in a gradient of C5a was also completely blocked by pertussis toxin and cytochalasin B. The C5a-induced motility reaction was accompanied by an increase in intracellular calcium ([Ca2+]i) as measured by a Fluo-3 based imaging system. Ca2+ transients were, however, not a prerequisite for triggering the increase in motility; motility could be repeatedly evoked by C5a in nominally Ca(2+)-free solution, while Ca2+ signals occurred only upon the first stimulation. Moreover, conditions mimicking intracellular Ca2+ transients, like incubation with thapsigargin or Ca2+ ionophore A23187, were not able to induce any motility reaction, suggesting that Ca2+ transients are not necessary for, but are associated with, microglial motility. Motile activity was shown to be restricted to a defined concentration range of [Ca2+]i as revealed by lowering [Ca2+]i with BAPTA-AM or increasing [Ca2+]i with A23187. Since complement factors are released at pathological sites, this signal cascade could serve to increase motility and to direct microglial cells to the lesioned or damaged area by means of a G-protein-dependent pathway and via the rearrangement of the actin cytoskeleton.