The innate immune system is activated by pathogens or environmental antigens following their binding by recognition molecules such as mannan-binding lectin, C-reactive protein and the mannose receptor. Natural antibody, which represents a collection of germline-encoded antigen recognition molecules, is also important in recognition of pathogens and activation of the innate immune system via the classical pathway of complement activation. The major source of natural antibody is CD5+ B-1 cells which differ from conventional B cells (B-2 cells) firstly because they are thought to require contact with antigen for expansion and maintenance and secondly because in general they do not appear to undergo somatic hypermutation. We review results which support an important role for complement in maintenance of B-1 cells, the effect being mediated by B cell expression of complement receptors CD21 and CD35. We propose that complement and natural antibody are interdependent: clonal selection and expansion of CD5+ B-1 cells is dependent on contact with antigen coated by the complement component C3d, while efficient recognition of pathogens and activation of complement is dependent in a large part on natural antibody. This hypothesis is supported by the finding that mice deficient in CD21 and CD35 have a reduced number of CD5+ B-1 cells and are missing specificities for certain antigens commonly found in wild-type mice, such as lipopolysaccharide, Escherichia coli surface antigens and neoepitopes expressed on hypoxic intestinal endothelium.