Listeria monocytogenes is a facultative intracellular bacterium that is phagocytosed by and can proliferate within cells of the mononuclear phagocyte system. However, the receptors used by macrophages to internalize this organism have not been identified. In the experiments described here, the contributions of serum complement component C3 and macrophage complement receptor type 3 (CR3) to opsonization and phagocytosis of L. monocytogenes by mouse inflammatory peritoneal macrophages were studied. An assay which allowed the distinction of adherent versus internalized bacteria was used to show that following mixing of L. monocytogenes with inflammatory macrophages, greater than 95% of the bacteria bound were internalized by these phagocytes. When immunofluorescent antibodies to C3 and immunoglobulin were used, C3 but not immunoglobulin was detected on L. monocytogenes following incubation in normal serum or ethylene glycol-bis(beta-aminoethyl ether)-N,N'-tetracetic acid-Mg(2+)-chelated serum. When macrophages were incubated with 5% serum and L. monocytogenes in a standard assay, approximately 80% of the phagocytosis was inhibited by heat-inactivated serum or by the addition of F(ab')2 anti-C3 antibody. The role of macrophage CR3 was demonstrated by the ability of anti-CR3 monoclonal antibody M1/70 to decrease phagocytosis to the same levels as those seen with heat-inactivated serum. These experiments indicated that in the presence of normal serum, L. monocytogenes is phagocytosed by inflammatory macrophages primarily because CR3 on these cells binds to C3 deposited on the bacterial surface.