Serum factors activating the alternative pathway of complement in vitro, independent of classical pathway activation was demonstrated in six of eleven patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). These serum factors were detected by lysis of gluthathione-sensitized human erythrocytes and by C3 and factor B conversion in the presence of EGTA (10 mM) and MgCl2 (0-3 mM), conditions which blocked activation of the classical pathway but permitted activation of the alternative pathway. In order to determine if in vivo activation of the alternative pathway of complement was present in SLE, highly-purified factor B was labelled with radioactive iodine (125I), and its metabolism studied in the eleven patients with SLE and in twelve control subjects. All six patients with serum factors capable of activating the alternative pathway in vitro, had in vivo evidence of alternative pathway activation as measured by increased fractional catabolic rate (FCR) of factor B. Two patients without demonstrable alternative pathway activating factors in their sera had an elevated FCR of factor B. Six of the patients with increased FCR of factor B had disease limited to skin or joint and one had lupus nephritis which was inactive at the time of study. One of the four patients who were in clinical remission had elevated FCR. This study demonstrates that a significant number of patients with SLE of relatively mild disease activity had evidence of alternative complement pathway activation. This activation did not appear to be limited to patients with lupus nephritis and raises the possibility that it could also be related to some of the extra-renal manifestations of SLE.