In mammals the complement system plays an important role in innate and acquired host defense mechanisms against infection and in various immunoregulatory processes. The complement system is an ancient defense mechanism that is already present in the invertebrate deuterostomes. In these species as well as in agnathans (the most primitive vertebrate species), both the alternative and lectin pathway of complement activation are already present, and the complement system appears to be involved mainly in opsonization of foreign material. With the emergence of immunoglobulins in cartilaginous fish, the classical and lytic pathways first appear. The rest of the poikilothermic species, from teleosts to reptilians, appear to contain a well-developed complement system resembling that of homeothermic vertebrates. However, important differences remain. Unlike homeotherms, several species of poikilotherms have recently been shown to possess multiple forms of complement components (C3 and factor B) that are structurally and functionally more diverse than those of higher vertebrates. It is noteworthy that the multiple forms of C3 that have been characterized in several teleost fish are able to bind with varying efficiencies to various complement-activating surfaces. We hypothesize that this diversity has allowed these animals to expand their innate capacity for immune recognition.