Mice rendered completely deficient of the complement components C3 or C4 were used to determine the influence of complement activation in the heterologous phase of the anti-GBM disease model. In wild-type animals the disease is characterized by a neutrophil infiltrate, capillary thrombosis, proteinuria and C3 and C4 deposited within the glomerulus. The early infiltration of neutrophils into the glomeruli is greater in wild-type mice (2.8 +/- 0.3) compared with C3-deficient (1.4 +/- 0.2) and C4-deficient (1.2 +/- 0.003) mice. Deficiency also protects against the subsequent development of proteinuria (2.99 +/- 1.11 mg/24h, 0.059 mg/24h and 0.327 +/- 0.14 mg/24h in wild-type, C3-deficient and C4-deficient mice, respectively) and decreases glomerular capillary thrombosis in both C3- and C4-deficient mice. The degree of protection is greater in the C3-deficient than the C4-deficient animals, suggesting both classical and alternative pathway involvement. These studies support a critical role for complement in the development of anti-GBM disease. However, the protective effect of complement deficiency can be broken if the dose of nephritogenic antibody is increased.