In this study, direct visual evidence for local opsonization of L. donovani by macrophage (M phi)-derived complement components was obtained using immunoelectron microscopy. C3 deposition was detected on the surface of both promastigotes and amastigotes after 20 min serum-free incubation with murine resident peritoneal M phi (RPM), followed by fixation and incubation first with specific antibody directed against C3 and then with gold-labelled protein A. Gold deposition was not observed around either form of the parasite if the anti-C3 antibody was omitted. For promastigotes, the degree of C3 deposition under serum-free conditions was comparable with that observed in the presence of an exogenous (serum) source of C3, but did not result in the same severe damage to the parasite as did the latter. Addition of sodium salicyl hydroxamate, which prevents covalent binding of C3 to activator surfaces, abrogated promastigote binding. Hence, although the anti-C3 antibody did not distinguish between native C3 and its breakdown product iC3b, these data support our earlier conclusion that promastigote binding to the CR3 of murine RPM is complement dependent. For amastigotes, gold deposition and binding to murine RPM were not eliminated by sodium salicyl hydroxamate. The presence of normal mouse serum resulted in increased gold deposition, but did not mediate either enhanced binding to M phi or damage to the amastigote. These data suggest that a proportion of C3 binding to the amastigote surface may be via noncovalent linkages, and that the C3 bound may not be in the correct form to mediate binding to CR3.