The first component of human complement was separated from C1-INH by sucrose linear gradient ultracentrifugation. Activation of C1 was studied in the absence and presence of immune complexes; activation was monitored by SDS-PAGE and Western blot. When the partially purified native C1 preparation was incubated at 37 degrees C without immune complexes, activated C1s appeared after 30 min in the case of eightfold dilution with respect to the original serum, and after 45 min with 32-fold dilution. Kinetics of appearance of activated C1r was the same as that of activated C1s. From the following results, we concluded that spontaneous activation may be partially due to proteolytic enzymes contaminating the preparation: 1) a nonspecific protease inhibitor, PMSF, completely inhibited spontaneous activation but did not inhibit the activation of C1 by immune complexes; 2) alpha 2-macroglobulin partially inhibited spontaneous activation, and 3) although spontaneous activation in the absence of PMSF was relatively slow, activated C1 accelerated spontaneous activation that was completely blocked by C1-INH. In contrast to spontaneous activation, the partially purified native C1 was rapidly activated by immune complexes: within 5 min almost all C1 was activated by rabbit IgG anti-human IgM-human IgM complexes. These results support conclusions derived from activation studies when using native C1 and hemolytic assays, and do not support those derived from the activation studies with reconstituted C1 and SDS-PAGE analysis. We suggest that the contradictions can be resolved if one assumes that C1 activation can be both an intra- and intermolecular process; which process dominates is determined by the state of C1 and by experimental conditions.