One of the key functions of antibodies is the activation (fixation) of complement. When antibody binds to bacteria, for example, certain complement proteins recognize the bound antibody and activate the complement cascade. In response, other complement proteins bind to the bacteria where some serve as opsonins to increase the efficiency of phagocytosis and others create holes in gram-negative bacterial cell membranes, causing lysis. This lytic activity can be used to detect the presence of antibodies against specific antigens in the serum.
Red blood cells are good indicator cells to use when evaluating complement-mediated cytolysis. Hemolysis of red blood cells releases hemoglobin, which is a brightly colored pigment, and hemolysis of even a small number of red cells will cause the solution to become noticeably pink. This characteristic plays a role in the complement fixation test, which allows the detection of antibodies against specific pathogens. The complement fixation test can be used to check for antibodies against pathogens that are difficult to culture in the lab such as fungi, viruses, or the bacteria Chlamydia.
To perform the complement fixation test, antigen from a pathogen is added to patient serum. If antibodies to the antigen are present, the antibody will bind the antigen and fix all the available complement. When red blood cells and antibodies against red blood cells are subsequently added to the mix, there will be no complement left to lyse the red cells. Thus, if the solution remains clear, the test is positive. If there are no antipathogen antibodies in the patient’s serum, the added antibodies will activate the complement to lyse the red cells, yielding a negative test.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology