The effects of sequential additions of purified human complement proteins C5b-6, C7, C8, and C9 to assemble the C5b-9 membrane attack complex (MAC) of complement on electrical properties of planar lipid bilayers have been analyzed. The high resistance state of such membranes was impaired after assembly of large numbers of C5b-8 complexes as indicated by the appearance of rapidly fluctuating membrane currents. The C5b-8 induced conductance was voltage dependent and rectifying at higher voltages. Addition of C9 to membranes with very few C5b-8 complexes caused appearance of few discrete single channels of low conductance (5-25 pS) but after some time very large (greater than 0.5 nS) jumps in conductance could be monitored. This high macroscopic conductance state was dominated by 125-pS channels having a lifetime of approximately 1 s. The high conductance state was not stable and declined again after a period of 1-3 h. Incorporation of MAC extracted from complement-lysed erythrocytes into liposomes and subsequent transformation of such complexes into planar bilayers via an intermediate monolayer state resulted in channels with characteristics similar to the ones produced by sequential assembly of C5b-9. Comparison of the high-conductance C5b-9 channel characteristics (lifetime, ion preference, ionic-strength dependence) with those produced by poly(C9) (the circular or tubular aggregation product of C9) as published by Young, J.D.-E., Z.A. Cohn, and E.R. Podack. (1986. Science [Wash. DC]. 233:184-190.) indicates that the two are significantly different.