Previous studies have demonstrated that encapsulated Staphylococcus aureus strains are not effectively opsonized by the serum complement system. Encapsulated staphylococci thereby 'resist phagocytosis'. To test whether this phenomenon might be explained by an inability of encapsulated strains to activate complement, the relationship between staphylococcal opsonization and serum complement activation was studied. Although encapsulation was found to interfere with opsonization by pooled human serum (human polymorphonuclear leukocytes phagocytized significantly fewer encapsulated bacteria than unencapsulated bacteria after incubation in this opsonic source), encapsulated (S. aureus M and Smith diffuse) and unencapsulated (S. aureus M variant and Smith compact) strains had similar capacities for complement activation as measured by C3-C9 consumption. When C2-deficient and immunoglobulin-deficient sera were studied, again C3-C9 consumption was not influenced by the presence or absence of a capsule. In addition, C3 was detected on the surface of both S. aureus M and M variant strains after incubation in pooled serum and staining with fluorescein-conjugated anti-C3 antibody. Thus, encapsulated staphylococci are not effectively opsonized even though complement is activated and C3 is present on the bacterial surface. The exact mechanism by which the capsule interferes with opsonization is still not known; however, inhibition of complement activation appears not to be the explanation of this phenomenon.