The Complement System


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The classical pathway, used during adaptive immune responses, occurs when C1 reacts with antibodies that have bound an antigen.

Source: OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

The complement system is a series of proteins constitutively found in the blood plasma. As such, these proteins are not considered part of the early induced immune response, even though they share features with some of the antibacterial proteins of this class. Made in the liver, they have a variety of functions in the innate immune response, using what is known as the “alternate pathway” of complement activation. Additionally, complement functions in the adaptive immune response as well, in what is called the classical pathway. The complement system consists of several proteins that enzymatically alter and fragment later proteins in a series, which is why it is termed cascade. Once activated, the series of reactions is irreversible, and releases fragments that have the following actions:

• Bind to the cell membrane of the pathogen that activates it, labeling it for phagocytosis (opsonization).

• Diffuse away from the pathogen and act as chemotactic agents to attract phagocytic cells to the site of inflammation.

• Form damaging pores in the plasma membrane of the pathogen.

The splitting of the C3 protein is the common step to both pathways. In the alternate pathway, C3 is activated spontaneously and, after reacting with the molecules factor P, factor B, and factor D, splits apart. The larger fragment, C3b, binds to the surface of the pathogen and C3a, the smaller fragment, diffuses outward from the site of activation and attracts phagocytes to the site of infection. Surface-bound C3b then activates the rest of the cascade, with the last five proteins, C5–C9, forming the membrane-attack complex (MAC). The MAC can kill certain pathogens by disrupting their osmotic balance. The MAC is especially effective against a broad range of bacteria. The classical pathway is similar, except the early stages of activation require the presence of antibody bound to antigen, and thus is dependent on the adaptive immune response. The earlier fragments of the cascade also have important functions. Phagocytic cells such as macrophages and neutrophils are attracted to an infection site by chemotactic attraction to smaller complement fragments. Additionally, once they arrive, their receptors for surface-bound C3b opsonize the pathogen for phagocytosis and destruction.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: