The effect of diesel exhaust particles (DEP) on the hemolytic activity of human serum complement was investigated. Previous treatment of human serum with DEP extracts at 37 degrees C decreased the hemolytic activity of human serum complement dose dependently, to 20% of its original value. This decrease in complement activity by DEP extracts was observed with previous incubation at 37 degrees C but not at 4 degrees C. A decrease in complement activity was observed after previous incubation at 37 degrees C in the presence of EGTA/Mg but not in the presence of EDTA, indicating that the alternative pathway of the complement system had been activated by DEP extracts. Activation of the complement system by DEP extracts was further demonstrated by observation of the cleavage of the third component of the complement (C3) in serum to C3b with immunoelectrophoresis using goat anti-human C3 antiserum. This cleavage of C3 was similarly observed in the presence of EGTA/Mg, indicating the activation of the alternative pathway of the complement system by DEP extracts. These results indicate that DEP can activate the alternative pathway of the complement system, resulting in a decrease in the hemolytic activity of complement and in the production of biologically active degradation products of complement proteins such as C3a. The biological significance of the activation of the complement by DEP in the alveolus is discussed in relation to the influx of neutrophiles.