Decay-accelerating factor (DAF) is a 70 kD membrane regulatory protein that prevents the activation of autologous complement on cell surfaces. Using immunohistochemical methods and a radioimmunometric assay based on mAbs to DAF, we found large amounts of membrane-associated DAF antigen on the epithelial surface of cornea, conjunctiva, oral and gastrointestinal mucosa, exocrine glands, renal tubules, ureter and bladder, cervical and uterine mucosa, and pleural, pericardial and synovial serosa. Additionally, we detected soluble DAF antigen in plasma, tears, saliva, and urine, as well as in synovial and cerebrospinal fluids. While plasma, tear, and saliva DAF are larger than erythrocyte (Ehu) membrane DAF by Western blot analysis, urine DAF is slightly smaller (67,000) in Mr. Unlike purified Ehu DAF, however, urine DAF is unable to incorporate into the membrane of red cells. Although its inhibitory activity on the complement enzyme C3-convertase is lower than that of Ehu DAF, it is comparable to that of serum C4 binding protein (C4bp). Biosynthetic studies using cultured foreskin epithelium and Hela cells disclosed DAF levels (approximately 2 X 10(5) molecules/cell) exceeding those on blood cells. In addition, these studies revealed the synthesis of two DAF species, one with apparent Mr corresponding to that of epithelial cell membrane DAF and the other to urine DAF, suggesting that the urine DAF variant arises from adjacent epithelium. The function of DAF in body fluids is unknown, but the observation that urine DAF has C4bp-(or factor H-)like activity shows that it could inhibit the fluid phase activation of the cascade.