The assembly of the C5b-9 complex on the outer membrane of C-sensitive cells of Escherichia coli results in a rapid inhibition of inner membrane function and ultimately a loss of cell viability. Cells bearing C5b-8 sites suffer no deleterious effects; however, the addition of C9 results in a rapid inhibition of inner membrane function and cell death. An attempt was made to examine the relationship between the toxic effects of the C5b-9 complex and the number of C9 molecules per C5b-8 site. Cells bearing C5b-8 sites were exposed to excess C9 at 0 degrees C and washed three times at 4 degrees C. The number of C9 molecules bound to each cell was equivalent to the number of C5b-8 sites present on each cell, and no additional C9 molecules could be bound when the cells were maintained at 4 degrees C. These cells were then incubated at 37 degrees C for 3 min and returned to 0 degrees C, a technique which exposed additional C9-binding sites equivalent to the number of C9 molecules previously bound to the cells. This technique was repeated and demonstrated that the sequential build-up of a C5b-9 site with two C9 molecules per C5b-8 site was capable of inhibiting both inner membrane function (respiration and amino acid transport) and cell viability. Three C9 molecules per complex had effects that approached the inhibitory effects of complexes formed in the presence of excess C9.