The affected erythrocytes of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH II and PNH III cells) are abnormally sensitive to complement-mediated lysis. Normal human erythrocytes chemically modified by treatment with 2-amino-ethylisothiouronium bromide (AET) have been used as models for PNH cells inasmuch as they also exhibit an enhanced susceptibility to complement. To investigate the bases for the greater sensitivity of these abnormal cells to complement-mediated lysis, we compared binding of C3 and constituents of the membrane attack complex to normal, PNH II, PNH III, and AET-treated cells after classical pathway activation by antibody and fluid-phase activation by cobra venom factor complexes. When whole serum complement was activated by antibody, there was increased binding of C3 and C9 to PNH II, PNH III, and AET-treated cells, although the binding of these complement components to PNH II and PNH III cells was considerably greater than their binding to the AET-treated cells. In addition, all of the abnormal cell types showed a greater degree of lysis per C9 bound than did the normal erythrocytes. PNH III and AET-treated cells were readily lysed by fluid-phase activation of complement, whereas normal and PNH II erythrocytes were not susceptible to bystander lysis. The greater hemolysis of PNH III and AET-treated cells in this reactive lysis system was due to a quantitative increase in binding of constituents of the membrane attack complex. This more efficient binding of the terminal components after fluid-phase activation of whole serum complement was not mediated by cell-bound C3 fragments. These investigations demonstrate that the molecular events that characterize the enhanced susceptibility of PNH II, PNH III, and AET-treated erythrocytes to complement-mediated lysis are heterogeneous.