The complement system consists of a number of small proteins found in the blood, synthesized by the liver, which circulate as inactive precursors (pro-proteins). When stimulated by one of several triggers, proteases in the system cleave specific proteins to release cytokines and initiate an amplifying cascade of further cleavages. The end result of this complement activation or complement fixation cascade is stimulation of phagocytes to clear foreign and damaged material, inflammation to attract additional phagocytes, and activation of the cell-killing membrane attack complex. Over 30 proteins and protein fragments make up the complement system, including serum proteins, and cell membrane receptors. They account for about 10% of the globulin fraction of blood serum.
In 1888, George Nuttall found that sheep blood serum had mild killing activity against the bacterium that causes anthrax. The killing activity disappeared when he heated the blood. In 1891, Hans Ernst August Buchner, noting the same property of blood in his experiments, named the killing property "alexin," which means "to ward off" in Greek. By 1884, several laboratories had demonstrated that serum from guinea pigs that had recovered from cholera killed the cholera bacterium in vitro. Heating the serum destroyed its killing activity. Nevertheless, the heat-inactivated serum, when injected into guinea pigs exposed to the cholera bacteria, maintained its ability to protect the animals from illness. Jules Bordet, a young Belgian scientist in Paris at the Pasteur Institute, concluded that this principle has two components, one that maintained a "sensitizing" effect after being heated and one (alexin) whose toxic effect was lost after being heated. The heat-stable component was responsible for immunity against specific microorganisms, whereas the heat-sensitive component was responsible for the non-specific antimicrobial activity conferred by all normal sera. In 1899, Paul Ehrlich renamed the heat-sensitive component "complement."
Ehrlich introduced the term "complement" as part of his larger theory of the immune system. According to this theory, the immune system consists of cells that have specific receptors on their surface to recognize antigens. Upon immunisation with an antigen, more of these receptors are formed, and they are then shed from the cells to circulate in the blood. These receptors, which we now call "antibodies," were called by Ehrlich "amboceptors" to emphasise their bifunctional binding capacity: They recognise and bind to a specific antigen, but they also recognise and bind to the heat-labile antimicrobial component of fresh serum. Ehrlich, therefore, named this heat-labile component "complement," because it is something in the blood that "complements" the cells of the immune system. Ehrlich believed that each antigen-specific amboceptor has its own specific complement, whereas Bordet believed that there is only one type of complement. In the early 20th century, this controversy was resolved when it became understood that complement can act in combination with specific antibodies, or on its own in a non-specific way.