BACKGROUND The contribution of humoral alloreactivity to the rejection of renal allografts is not well defined because humoral antigraft reactions are not easily detectable in transplant biopsies, and serial measurements of circulating allo-antibodies in the post-transplantation period are not routinely performed. We have developed diagnostic techniques that improve the assessment of humoral alloreactivity in vivo and in vitro. METHODS Humoral alloreactivity in transplant biopsies derived from 218 single kidney grafts was detected by assessing the deposition of complement fragment C4d in interstitial capillaries. Circulating alloantibodies were determined in corresponding serum samples by flow cytometry using lymphoblastoid cell lines of donor DR-type as target cells and by a conventional microcytotoxicity test. The impact of capillary C4d and other selected variables on renal graft survival was calculated by univariate and multivariate analysis. RESULTS Capillary C4d, present in 46% of biopsies from first grafts and 72% of regrafts, is related to circulating alloantibodies. Grafts with capillary C4d have a markedly shorter survival than grafts without capillary C4d (50% graft survival, 4 vs. 8 years, P = 0.0001). Among several risk factors, capillary C4d is the strongest predictor of subsequent graft loss in a multivariate analysis (relative risk, 2.1, 95% CI, 1.4 to 3.1). Humoral alloreactivity detectable within six months after transplantation has a much stronger impact on graft survival than alloreactivity detected beyond this period. CONCLUSIONS Humoral alloreactivity, manifested by the capillary deposition of complement C4d in about 50% of biopsied renal grafts, exerts a strong impact on graft survival when it operates within six months after transplantation.