Type C retroviruses endogenous to various nonprimate species can infect human cells in vitro, yet the transmission of these viruses to humans is restricted. This has been attributed to direct binding of the complement component C1q to the viral envelope protein p15E, which leads to classical pathway-mediated virolysis in human serum. Here we report a novel mechanism of complement-mediated type C retrovirus inactivation that is initiated by the binding of "natural antibody" [Ab] (anti-alpha-galactosyl Ab) to the carbohydrate epitope Gal alpha 1-3Gal beta 1-4GlcNAc-R expressed on the retroviral envelope. Complement-mediated inactivation of amphotropic retroviral particles was found to be restricted to human and other Old World primate sera, which parallels the presence of anti-alpha-galactosyl natural Ab. Blockade or depletion of anti-alpha-galactosyl Ab in human serum prevented inactivation of both amphotropic and ecotropic murine retroviruses. Similarly, retrovirus was not killed by New World primate serum except in the presence of exogenous anti-alpha-galactosyl Ab. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays revealed that the alpha-galactosyl epitope was expressed on the surface of amphotropic and ecotropic retroviruses, and Western blot analysis further localized this epitope to the retroviral envelope glycoprotein gp70. Finally, down-regulation of this epitope on the surface of murine retroviral particle producer cells rendered them, as well as the particles liberated from these cells, resistant to inactivation by human serum complement. Our data suggest that anti-alpha-galactosyl Ab may provide a barrier for the horizontal transmission of retrovirus from species that express the alpha-galactosyl epitope to humans and to other Old World primates. Further, these data provide a mechanism for the generation of complement-resistant retroviral vectors for in vivo gene therapy applications where exposure to human complement is unavoidable.