The four human IgG isotypes are highly conserved in amino acid sequence, but show differential ability to activate complement (C'): IgG3 and IgG1 are very active, IgG2 is active under certain conditions, and IgG4 is inactive. Although the second constant domain [C(H)2] is critical for C' activation, the individual amino acids that confer isotype-specific activity have not been identified. We have generated a series of mutants between IgG2 and IgG3, resulting in the exchange of the four N-terminal and six C-terminal polymorphic residues within C(H)2. Mutants containing the N-terminus of the C(H)2 of IgG3 were as effective as wildtype IgG3 in C1q binding, C1 activation and terminal complex (MAC) formation, but had reduced ability to effect C'-mediated lysis. IgG2 and mutants containing the N-terminal portion of the C(H)2 of IgG2 were reduced compared to IgG3 in activating C1, binding C1q and inducing assembly of the MAC, and were inactive in mediating lysis of target cells. Thus, the amino acid sequence differences in the N-terminus of C(H)2 play a critical role in determining the relative abilities of IgG2 and IgG3 to bind C1q and activate the C' cascade although additional residues of C(H)2 must be involved in mediating optimal target cells lysis. The sequence of the N-terminus of C(H)2 was less critical in determining C4 and C3 binding. Characterization of domain exchange mutants suggests that intermediate steps may be partly dependent on domains other than C(H)2. IgGs that do not direct target cell lysis nevertheless activate intermediate steps in the pathway, which may contribute to immune complex-associated disorders.