Previous studies had demonstrated that strains of Entamoeba histolytica isolated from patients with colitis or amebic liver abscess were resistant to complement-mediated killing, whereas strains from asymptomatic patients were readily lysed by non-immune serum. Both serum-sensitive and serum-resistant strains of E. histolytica depleted complement rapidly as assessed by CH50, C3, and C7, and C5-9 hemolytic activities. Activation of the alternative pathway was important in lysis of nonpathogenic strains, as demonstrated by lysis by NHS (60.9 +/- 15.6%) and NHS + 5 mM EGTA (59.3 +/- 4.5%) as well as by C4-deficient guinea pig serum (72.8 +/- 7.1%) and C2-deficient human serum (64.4 +/- 11.1%), but not by NHS + 5 mM EDTA. Classical pathway activation also occurs as both pathogenic and nonpathogenic strains deplete greater than 98% of C4 activity, although it is not necessary for lysis. Pathogenic strains are not lysed by either the classical or the alternative pathway. These results suggest that pathogenic strains of E. histolytica activate complement but are able to evade an important host defense, complement-mediated lysis.