A sensitive quantitative test for nephritic factor (NF) in human serum is reported. The test is based on the capacity of NF to initiate fluid phase consumption of the third complement (C) component in the presence of magnesium ions (Mg++) and of factors of the alternative pathway of C activation. These factors as well as C3 and C5 were supplied by the incorporation of normal human serum (NHS) into the assay mixture. In order to prevent C3 (and C5) consumption via the Ca++- and Mg++-dependent classical pathway, the test was performed in the presence of the chelating agent Mg-ethylene bis (oxyethylene-nitrilo) tetraacetic acid (Mg EGTA) which interacts preferentially with Ca++. The Mg EGTA concentration was found to be critical, a final concentration of 5 mM in the assay mixture being required for optimal results. By its heat stability (54 degrees to 56 degrees C, 30 min), NF could be distinguished from other, heat-labile NF-like factors. The NF test was applied to five categories of patients with glomerulonephritis (GN). Heat-stable NF activity was found in seven of 17 sera in the membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis (MPGN) group. Two of the 12 acute poststreptococcal GN sera had NF-like activity which disappeared upon heating. Serum C3 and proactivator (PA) concentrations varied widely in all groups but a clear positive relationship was found between the presence of NF and low serum C3 concentrations in MPGN. Renal immunofluorescence in MPGN indicated a lesser amount of lg deposited in glomeruli from patients with NF when compared to the NF-negative patients. Both groups had heavy C3 deposits. The availability of a sensitive, quantitative assay for NF may help to provide further insight into the various pathogenic mechanisms in different forms of MPGN.