Patients with multiple myeloma (MM) are at an increased risk for infections with bacteria that require opsonization with complement. Because Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most frequently encountered pathogen in these patients, we investigated the ability of serum from patients with MM to mediate the binding of C3b, the major opsonin of the complement system, to S. pneumoniae. S. pneumoniae types 3, 14, and 25 were chosen for study, since S. pneumoniae type 3 activates primarily the classical complement pathway (CCP), type 25 primarily the alternative complement pathway (ACP), and type 14 both pathways. S. pneumoniae were treated with normal serum or serum from 17 patients with MM, and the bound C3b was quantified with fluorescein-conjugated anti-C3 in a spectrophotofluorometric assay. Despite normal or elevated serum concentrations of C3, total hemolytic complement, and C-reactive protein in all of the MM sera, factor B in 16/17 such sera, and C4 in 14/17 MM sera studied, all 17 sera demonstrated a defect in C3b binding to type 3 (32.7% +/- 6% of normal). In addition, serum from 15/17 patients bound decreased amounts of C3b to types 14 (39.6% +/- 8%) and 25 (52.2% +/- 8%). Mixing normal serum with MM serum restored MM C3b binding activity to all three S. pneumoniae types, suggesting that the defect was related to a deficiency rather than an inhibitor of C3 activation. Although MM patients are unable to produce specific antibodies to bacterial antigens, the addition of anti-S. pneumoniae antibodies to MM serum did not enhance C3b binding to any of the S. pneumoniae types. However, when S. pneumoniae were opsonized in a mixture of MM serum and C3-depleted normal serum, C3b binding was restored to all three S. pneumoniae types, demonstrating that MM C3 functions normally in the presence of other normal serum factors. In the present studies, the MM C3b binding defect appeared to correlate with the incidence of S. pneumoniae infections. Serum from patients with a history of an S. pneumoniae infection bound significantly less C3 (20.5% +/- 4%) than those study patients without a history of an S. pneumoniae infection (55.8% +/- 8%) (p less than 0.0025). Thus, MM serum has a defect in the activation of C3, and this may contribute to the increased susceptibility of MM patients to S. pneumoniae infections.