In an effort to determine the staphylococcal cell surface component(s) of importance in opsonization, cell walls (peptidoglycan and teichoic acid) and peptidoglycan were isolated from Staphylococcus aureus strain H grown in [3H]glycine-containing broth. After incubation of the cell walls and peptidoglycan with various opsonic sources, uptake by human polymorphonuclear leukocytes was measured. The opsonic requirements for phagocytosis of cell walls and peptidoglycan were found to be similar to those of intact bacteria. Removal of teichoic acid from the cell wall did not affect opsonization. Likewise, a teichoic acid-deficient mutant strain of S. aureus H was opsonized in a manner similar to that of the parent strain. Immunoglobulin G functioned as the major heat-stable opsonic factor and both the classical and alternative pathways participated in opsonization. Kinetic studies revealed that opsonization of peptidoglycan, as well as C3-C9 consumption by peptidoglycan, proceeded at a slower rate via the alternative pathway (C2-deficient serum) than when the classical pathway was present (normal serum). The ability of peptidoglycan to activate C3-C9 was significantly reduced when normal and C2-deficient sera were preabsorbed with peptidoglycan at 2 degrees C suggesting that antibodies to peptidoglycan may be involved in activation of both the classical and alternative complement pathways. Thus, peptidoglycan appears to be the key cell wall component involved in staphylococcal opsonization, and it is suggested that host response to peptidoglycan, a major cell wall component of most gram-positive bacteria, may be related to the development of "natural immunity" to this group of microorganisms.