The susceptibility of trophoblast to cytolysis by human complement was investigated using cells purified to over 90% from first trimester placentae. Two assay systems were employed to measure the killing of trophoblasts, an antibody-dependent complement-mediated cytolysis and the reactive lysis. The antibody obtained from a patient with Addison's disease reacted specifically with syncytiotrophoblasts and induced a dose-dependent killing of the cells not exceeding 50% even in the presence of excess antibody and complement. The percentage of cells killed by the terminal complement complex in the reactive lysis system was somewhat higher, reaching values of 60%. Immunofluorescence analysis revealed the presence of CD46 and CD59 on all syncytiotrophoblasts, whereas CD55 was only detected on approximately 30% of the cells. Inhibition of CD46 and CD59 resulted in increased susceptibility of syncytiotrophoblasts to complement lysis. The protective function of CD55 could not be evaluated because of its reduced expression on isolated trophoblasts. These results suggest that syncytiotrophoblasts may be killed by complement and that membrane regulators to some extent protect these cells from complement damage.