We examined the ability of human monocytes and culture-derived macrophages under serum-free conditions to phagocytose desialated sheep erythrocytes (E), an activator of the alternative pathway of human complement. Freshly derived monocytes ingested desialated erythrocytes, but the degree of phagocytosis varied among individual donors. However, exposing the phagocyte to intact plasma fibronectin (Fn) had no effect on monocyte phagocytosis. Macrophages derived from monocytes in culture were far more efficient at ingesting desialated E, and the extent of phagocytosis was proportional to the degree of desialation. Although exposure of macrophages to substrate-bound Fn or fluid-phase Fn enhanced the phagocytosis of desialated E, pretreatment of desialated E with Fn did not enhance phagocytosis, demonstrating that Fn acted through an interaction with the macrophages. Fn-enhanced phagocytosis of desialated E was inhibited by treating macrophages with a monoclonal antibody to the C4b/C3b receptor (CR1), but not with a monoclonal antibody to the receptor for C3bi (CR3). Addition of cobra venom factor (CVF) to the macrophages also inhibited Fn-enhanced phagocytosis of desialated E. Phagocytosis of IgG-sensitized E, either in the absence or in the presence of Fn, was not significantly affected by anti-CR1 or CVF, demonstrating that these reagents did not lead to a general inhibition of phagocytosis. These experiments suggest that macrophages may deposit enough C3b onto desialated E to cause CR1-mediated phagocytosis in the presence of Fn. The ability of macrophages to opsonize and ingest foreign particles that activate complement may be critically important in areas of inflammation where concentrations of serum-derived specific opsonins may be inadequate.