We have studied the turnover of the third component of C (C3) and capture of the major cleavage fragment of C3 produced during C activation (C3b) that occurs when soluble antibody/DNA immune complexes (IC) active C. We used the Amersham RIA kit for the minor cleavage fragment of C3 produced during C activation (C3a), and a new assay utilizing mAb to C3b to measure the fraction of active C3 in a C source after the IC activate C. These mAb, along with a mAb to human IgG, allowed us to measure IC stoichiometries. The efficiency of C3 turnover by the IC is quite high, and under conditions of Ab excess, the maximum number of IgG bound per dsDNA corresponds to 1 IgG/20 to 30 base pairs. The maximum number of C3b found in the IC corresponds to less than 1 C3b/IgG, and the vast majority of the captured C3b is bound to the IgG, and not to the DNA. We identified several IC that consumed large amounts of C3, and captured large amounts of C3b, but did not bind to human E via C3b receptors (C receptor type 1). This finding suggests that the ability of IC to bind to human E depends upon the number and distribution of captured C3b molecules and the conformation and size of the DNA Ag, which reflects the need for multivalent binding between several properly arrayed C3b and a 'cluster' of C receptor type 1 on the human E membrane. IC that activate C3 but do not bind to E would presumably 'escape' the E IC clearance mechanism, but could deposit in susceptible organs and tissues and play a role in the pathogenesis of SLE because of their potential to generate theinflammatory products of C activation.