The mechanism by which the Hageman factor-dependent system induces vascular permeability has been analyzed. The Mr-28,000 active fragment of guinea pig Hageman factor (beta-HFa), injected intradermally, induces an increase in local vascular permeability. Inhibition of vascular permeability resulted from pretreatment of the beta-HFa with immunopurified anti-Hageman factor F(ab')2 antibody at concentrations of 10(-6)-10(-7) M as well as by incubation with corn and pumpkin seed inhibitors of beta-HFa. To determine whether prekallikrein and kallikrein participated in the permeability induced by beta-HFa, circulating prekallikrein was depleted by intra-arterial injections of anti-prekallikrein F(ab')2 antibody. This resulted in about 80% diminution of the vascular permeability response to beta-HFa, without affecting the permeability reaction to bradykinin. Soybean trypsin inhibitor (10(-6) M), injected at the same cutaneous site as the beta-HFa, inhibited the vascular permeability response to beta-HFa by more than 90%. This concentration of soybean inhibitor blocked more than 90% of the activity of guinea pig plasma kallikrein, but did not inhibit the amidolytic capacity of beta-HFa. The permeability activity of beta-HFa (but not its amidolytic activity) was augmented 10-fold by simultaneous injection of a synthetic kinin potentiator, SQ 20,881 (Glu-Tyr-Pro-Arg-Pro-Gln-Ile-Pro-Pro-OH), and was almost completely inhibited by the simultaneous injection of a kinin-destroying enzyme, carboxypeptidase B. These results support the hypothesis that the greatest proportion of vascular permeability induced by beta-HFa is produced by the activation of prekallikrein followed by the release of kinin in the cutaneous tissue. These data offer the first in vivo evidence that the Hageman factor-dependent system by itself can induce inflammatory changes.