The serum lectin, mannan binding protein (MBP), was isolated in a yield of 40 micrograms/liter from pooled normal human serum by affinity chromatography on mannan-Sepharose, followed by gel-filtration and ion-exchange chromatography and finally by passage down an anti-IgM Sepharose column. A rabbit antiserum was prepared against the purified MBP and an enzyme-linked immunoassay developed that used both the specificity of the polyclonal antibody and the Ca+(+)-dependent carbohydrate binding property of MBP. Assay of the sera from 103 blood-donors showed a wide range of MBP levels, ranging from 0 to 870 micrograms/liter. MBP, after interaction with zymosan, caused efficient activation of a C1r2 125I-C1s2 complex that was prepared by incubation of 125I-C1s2 with serum, from a patient with a complete genetic deficiency of C1q, followed by gel-filtration on Sepharose 6B. The purified MBP is composed of a mixture of trimers, tetramers, pentamers, and hexamers of an approximate 90-kDa structural unit as judged by chromatography, SDS-PAGE and electron microscopy studies. Only the molecules in the pentamer/hexamer fraction, which have a similar overall structure to that of C1q, appeared to cause efficient, zymosan-dependent, activation of C1s within the C1r2C1s2 complex. The pentamer/hexamer form of MBP may therefore play an important role in antibody-independent activation of the C system during the early stages of certain infections.