An array of approximately 20 types of soluble proteins, called a complement system, functions to destroy extracellular pathogens. Cells of the liver and macrophages synthesize complement proteins continuously; these proteins are abundant in the blood serum and are capable of responding immediately to infecting microorganisms. The complement system is so named because it is complementary to the antibody response of the adaptive immune system. Complement proteins bind to the surfaces of microorganisms and are particularly attracted to pathogens that are already bound by antibodies. Binding of complement proteins occurs in a specific and highly regulated sequence, with each successive protein being activated by cleavage and/or structural changes induced upon binding of the preceding protein(s). After the first few complement proteins bind, a cascade of sequential binding events follows in which the pathogen rapidly becomes coated in complement proteins.
Complement proteins perform several functions. The proteins serve as a marker to indicate the presence of a pathogen to phagocytic cells, such as macrophages and B cells, and enhance engulfment; this process is called opsonization. Certain complement proteins can combine to form attack complexes that open pores in microbial cell membranes. These structures destroy pathogens by causing their contents to leak, as illustrated in Figure.