Previous reports have shown that regulation of local extrahepatic production of complement may not reflect the regulation of plasma concentrations of the corresponding proteins and, further, that alteration of the tissue microenvironment can affect local macrophage protein synthesis. This report describes the molecular basis for control of the biosynthesis and secretion of a class III major histocompatibility complex gene product, the fourth component of complement (C4), from guinea pig macrophages by extracellular native C4 protein. The effect is specific for C4 synthesis, since production of C2 and total secreted protein was unaffected by fluid phase C4. C4 synthesis by extracellular C4 is regulated at a pretranslational level, without an effect on posttranslational proteolytic cleavage, glycosylation, or secretion. Specific C4 and factor B cDNA probes were used to demonstrate, by dot hybridization and Northern blot analysis, a decrease in messenger RNA coding for C4 that paralleled the inhibition of C4 biosynthesis, while the amount of total RNA and mRNA specific for factor B remained constant. Inhibition of C4 biosynthesis and the disappearance of mRNA encoding C4 occurred between 4 and 6 h after exposure of the macrophages to biologically active or methylamine-inactivated C4 protein. These data demonstrate that regulation of C4 biosynthesis by guinea pig macrophages serves as a model for the study of the molecular mechanisms of macrophage activation as well as the control of production of a component of the inflammatory response.