Activation of human normal serum with tetanus/antitetanus immune complexes (TAT-IC) resulted in increased binding of 125I-labeled interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta) to serum factors, as opposed to untreated serum. Sodium dodecyl sulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE) followed by autoradiography showed labeling of two large molecular mass factors of an apparent molecular weight (Mr) of 200,000 and 400,000, respectively. These complexes could be dissociated by reduction. No complexes were formed when reducing compounds were added to serum-TAT-IC-125I-IL-1 beta mixtures. Complex formation was largely prevented by alkylating compounds. Molecular sieve chromatography of TAT-IC-activated serum confirmed that 125I-IL-1 beta became bound to high Mr serum proteins. Fractions containing high molecular 125I-IL-1 serum protein complexes partially retained IL-1- like activity since they induced proliferation of an IL-1-dependent murine T helper (D10G4) cell lineage. The 125I-IL-1 beta binding factors could be immunoprecipitated from TAT-IC-activated serum 125I-IL- 1 beta solutions by antisera to alpha 2-macroglobulin (alpha 2M) or to the third complement component (C3). SDS-PAGE of the immunoprecipitates showed radioactive bands corresponding to the expected Mr resulting from complex formation between 125I-IL-1 beta and these two proteins. Treatment of purified plasma alpha 2M and C3 with trypsin or activation with methylamine, which causes cleavage of the internal thiol ester and the appearance of free thiol groups in these proteins, mediated binding of 125I-IL-1 beta to alpha 2M and C3b. The results suggest that cleavage of the internal thiol ester in C3 and alpha 2M makes these plasma proteins susceptible to binding of 125I-IL-1 beta and that free thiol groups do play a role in the formation of 125I-IL-1 beta plasma protein complexes. Activated C3 and alpha 2M may function as IL-1 beta carrier proteins in biologic fluids, in addition to their other physiologic roles.