Encapsulated and nonencapsulated cryptococci exhibit quantitative and qualitative differences in their activation of the complement system. We examined the kinetics for the rapid amplification phase in which C3 was activated and bound to encapsulated cryptococci, nonencapsulated cryptococci, and zymosan particles. Yeast cells were incubated in normal human serum containing 125I-labeled C3, and bound C3 fragments were measured after 1 to 64 min of incubation. A kinetic analysis showed that the apparent first-order rate constant (k') for binding of C3 to nonencapsulated cryptococci did not differ significantly from k' for binding of C3 to zymosan particles (P greater than 0.05). However, the rate constant for binding of C3 to encapsulated cryptococci was significantly (P less than 0.001) greater than k' for binding of C3 to nonencapsulated cryptococci and zymosan particles. A plot of C3 molecules bound to encapsulated cryptococci versus time cubed was nearly linear, suggesting that accumulation of C3 in the cryptococcal capsule follows the kinetics predicted by an expanding sphere. In contrast, the plot of C3 molecules bound to nonencapsulated cryptococci or zymosan particles against time was nearly linear, but those plots against time squared or time cubed were not. This result indicates that the rate-limiting step for the addition of C3 fragments to these latter yeast cells follows the kinetics of neither the perimeter of an expanding circle nor the surface of an expanding sphere. Taken together, the results indicate that the high rate of accumulation of C3 in the cryptococcal capsule is consistent with the expected geometry of an expanding sphere of bound C3 within the three-dimensional matrix of the capsule.