Two monoclonal antibodies directed against C1q, and their (Fab)2 and Fab fragments, were used to study the mechanism of C1 activation. Monoclonal antibody 2A10, an IgG2a, was digested by pepsin to yield fully immunoreactive (Fab')2. Monoclonal antibody 1H11, an IgG1, was digested by papain to yield fully immunoreactive, bivalent (Fab)2. Previously 1H11 had been shown to bind to the C1q "heads," whereas 2A10 bound to stalks. Activation of C1 was followed by the cleavage of 125I-C1s in the presence of C1 inhibitor (C1-Inh) at 37 degrees C. Spontaneous activation was minimal at inhibitor concentrations above 0.4 micron (1.3 X physiologic inhibitor concentration); all results were corrected for the spontaneous activation background. Heat-aggregated IgG activated completely in this system and was taken as 100% activation. Monoclonal antibody 2A10 caused precipitation of C1 and slow activation; neither the (Fab')2 nor the Fab' derived from 2A10-caused activation. Probably, aggregates of intact 2A10 and C1 were serving as immune complexes to activate other molecules of C1. In contrast, both 1H11 and its (Fab)2 activated completely and stoichiometrically; that is, maximal activation was achieved at a ratio of one C1q head to one antibody combining site. The monovalent Fab derived from 1H11 bound well to C1q, but no activation of C1 was observed. Thus, bivalent binding of this head-binding monoclonal is required for C1 activation, but not the presence of the antibody Fc portion. Neither 1H11 nor its (Fab)2 fragments caused C1 precipitation; however, the 1H11 did form complexes composed of two C1q cross-linked by multiple 1H11, which were visualized by electron microscopy. The presence of these dimeric complexes correlated well with activation. A model for C1 activation is proposed in which two C1q subcomponents are held together by multiple (Fab)2 bridging C1q heads. The model is roughly analogous to touching opposing pairs of fingers and thumb tips, the two hands representing the two C1q, forming a cage. C1-Inh, which probably binds to C1r through the open end of the C1 cone, is too long asymmetric to be included within the cage. Thus, according to this model, the dimers of C1 are released from the inhibitory action of C1-Inh, and activation proceeds spontaneously and rapidly at 37 degrees C.