Previous studies have demonstrated that most pathologic changes in the antithymocyte serum (ATS) model of mesangioproliferative glomerulonephritis are complement-dependent. These include mesangiolysis, glomerular platelet infiltration, mesangial cell proliferation, mesangial cell production of growth factors and phenotypic change to express alpha-actin, glomerular macrophage infiltrate, mesangial matrix expansion, and proteinuria. The mechanism by which complement mediates these effects has not been defined. Because neutrophils do not participate in the ATS model, we hypothesized that the complement effects observed are consequent to glomerular cell insertion of the C5b-9 membrane attack complex of complement. This hypothesis was tested utilizing PVG rats which exhibit an absence of C6 inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern. C6 deficient (C-) PVG rat serum activated by zymosan produced normal amounts of C5a compared to normocomplementemic (C+) PVG rat controls but no C5b-9. When ATS was induced, C- PVG rats had a significant and marked reduction in mesangiolysis, platelet infiltration, mesangial cell proliferation, alpha-actin expression, macrophage infiltration, collagen IV deposition, and proteinuria compared to C+ controls. The reduction in each of these parameters was comparable to that achieved by systemic complement depletion of C+ PVG rats with cobra venom factor. These findings establish the role of C5b-9 in mediating each of the complement-dependent features of the ATS model and indicate that C5b-9 accounts for all of the complement-mediated effects observed. This study provides the first documentation of a functional role for C5b-9 in mediating a non-membranous inflammatory type of glomerular injury in vivo.