The major characteristics of human atherosclerotic lesions are similar to those of a chronic inflammatory reaction, namely fibrosis, mesenchymal cell proliferation, the presence of resident macrophages, and cell necrosis. Atherosclerosis exhibits in addition the feature of lipid (mainly cholesterol) accumulation. The results of the present report demonstrate that a specific cholesterol-containing lipid particle present in human atherosclerotic lesions activates the complement system to completion. Thus, lipid could represent a stimulatory factor for the inflammatory reaction, whose underlying mechanistic basis may be, at least in part, complement activation. The complement-activating lipid was purified from saline extracts of aortic atherosclerotic lesions by sucrose density gradient centrifugation followed by molecular sieve chromatography on Sepharose 2B. It contained little protein other than albumin, was 100-500 nm in size, exhibited an unesterified to total cholesterol ratio of 0.58 and an unesterified cholesterol to phospholipid ratio of 1.2. The lipid, termed lesion lipid complement (LCA), activated the alternative pathway of complement in a dose-dependent manner. Lesion-extracted low density lipoprotein (LDL) obtained during the purification procedure failed to activate complement. Specific generation of C3a desArg and C5b-9 by LCA indicated C3/C5 convertase formation with activation proceeding to completion. Biochemical and electron microscopic evaluations revealed that much of the C5b-9 present in atherosclerotic lesions is membraneous, rather than fluid phase SC5b-9. The observations reported herein establish a link between lipid insudation and inflammation in atherosclerotic lesions via the mechanism of complement activation.