Our recent observations of a complement-mediated, cell-independent mechanism of altered glomerular permeability in rat membranous nephropathy suggested a possible role for the terminal complement pathway in the mediation of proteinuria in certain forms of glomerular disease. To directly determine whether the membranolytic terminal complement components (C5b-C9) are involved in glomerular injury, we studied the development of proteinuria in normal and C6-deficient (C6D) rabbits, in both of which a membranous nephropathy-like lesion develops early in the course of immunization with cationized bovine serum albumin (cBSA) (pI 8.9-9.2). C6 hemolytic activity of C6D was 0.01% that of control rabbits. After 1 wk of daily intravenous injections of cBSA, proteinuria developed in 71% of controls (median 154, range 1-3,010 mg/24 h, n = 24), whereas none of C6D were proteinuric (median 6, range 2-12 mg/24 h, n = 12, P less than 0.01). After 1 wk of cBSA, both groups had qualitatively identical glomerular deposits of BSA, rabbit IgG, and C3 on immunofluorescence microscopy, predominantly subepithelial electron-dense deposits on electron microscopy, and minimal glomerular inflammatory cell infiltration of glomeruli. Glomeruli were isolated from individual animals after 1 wk of cBSA and deposits of rabbit IgG antibody were quantitated by a standardized in vitro assay using anti-rabbit IgG-125I. Rabbit IgG deposits were found to be similar in control (29.8 +/- 13.2, range 12.7-48.6 micrograms anti-IgG/2,000 glomeruli, n = 6) and C6D rabbits (32.6 +/- 13.8, range 16.8-48.8 micrograms anti-IgG/2,000 glomeruli, n = 5, P greater than 0.05). After 2 wk, coincident with a prominent influx of mononuclear cells and neutrophils, proteinuria developed in C6D rabbits. These results document, for the first time, a requirement for a terminal complement component in the development of immunologic glomerular injury. Since the only known action of C6 is in the assembly of the membrane attack complex, these observations suggest that the membranolytic properties of complement may contribute to glomerular damage.