In earlier studies we found that human serum, but not serum from multiple other species, inactivated and lysed oncornaviruses from a number of diverse sources in the apparent absence of antibody. A detailed analysis of the role of the human complement (C) system in mediating this lytic process indicates that human C1q interacts directly, in the absence of immunoglobulin, with oncornaviruses. Binding of C1 via C1q in this manner leads to activation of C1r, C1s, and thus of the classical C pathway. Integrity of the classical pathway is an absolute requirement for lysis although activation of the alternative pathway considerably amplifies the amount of lysis obtained, possibly through involvement of the C3b-dependent feedback mechanism. Activation of C is accompanied by deposition of C components on the viral surface and lysis on completion of the C reaction sequence. Thus in this system, the C1q subunit of C1 subserves a specific recognition function normally associated with antibody. This ability of human serum to inactivate oncornaviruses may represent a natural defense mechanism operative in vivo which deters expression of intact oncornaviruses in human malignancies.