Neonates are particularly susceptible to infection with Escherichia coli K1. To investigate the mechanisms which lead to this susceptibility, we examined: (a) the bactericidal activity of neutrophils; (b) opsonization, and (c) the bactericidal activity of serum in developing rats. Neutrophils from adult rats killed E. coli K1 more efficiently than did neutrophils from young animals. Opsonization of E. coli by serum of prematurely delivered rats was poor. Serum from prematurely delivered and term rats promoted growth of E. coli K1, while serum from adult rats killed greater than 95% of the organisms within 90 min. However, the mixture of heat-inactivated serum from adult rats plus serum from prematurely delivered rats killed E. coli K1.