Control of the complement system

Adv Immunol. 1996;61:201-83. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2776(08)60868-8.


The complement system has developed a remarkably simple but elegant manner of regulating itself. It has faced and successfully dealt with how to facilitate activation on a microbe while preventing the same on host tissue. It solved this problem primarily by creating a series of secreted and membrane-regulatory proteins that prevent two highly undesirable events: activation in the fluid phase (no target) and on host tissue (inappropriate target). Also, if not checked, even on an appropriate target, the system would go to exhaustion and have nothing left for the next microbe. Therefore, the complement enzymes have an intrinsic instability and the fluid-phase control proteins play a major role in limiting activation in time. The symmetry of the regulatory process between fluid phase and membrane inhibitors at the C4/C3 step of amplification and convertase formation as well as at the MAC steps are particularly striking features of the self/nonself discrimination system. The use of glycolipid anchored proteins on membranes to decay enzymes and block membrane insertion events is unlikely to be by chance. Finally, it is economical for the cofactor regulatory activity to produce derivatives of C3b that now specifically engage additional receptors. Likewise, C1-Inh leads to C1q remaining on the immune complex to interact with the C1q receptor. Thus the complement system is designed to allow rapid, efficient, unimpeded activation on an appropriate foreign target while regulatory proteins intervene to prevent three undesirable consequences of complement activation: excessive activation on a single target, fluid phase activation, and activation on self.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anaphylatoxins / immunology
  • Animals
  • Complement C3-C5 Convertases / immunology
  • Complement Membrane Attack Complex / immunology
  • Complement System Proteins / immunology*
  • Humans


  • Anaphylatoxins
  • Complement Membrane Attack Complex
  • Complement System Proteins
  • Complement C3-C5 Convertases