Candida albicans, an opportunistic fungal pathogen of humans, is dependent upon iron for growth. Consequently, human serum inhibits C. albicans growth due to the presence of high affinity iron-binding proteins that sequester serum iron, making it unavailable for use by the organism. We report that in the inhibitory environment of human serum, the growth of C. albicans can be restored by the addition of exogenous hemoglobin or heme, but not by protoporphyrin IX, the heme precursor that does not contain iron. We further report that C. albicans can utilize cell surface proteins that are homologues of the mammalian complement receptors (CR) to rosette complement-coated red blood cells (RBC) and obtain RBC-derived iron for growth. The ability of Candida to acquire RBC-derived iron under these conditions is dependent upon Candida-RBC rosetting mediated by CR-like molecules. Unopsonized RBC do not support Candida growth in serum, and restoration of Candida growth in serum by complement-opsonized RBC is inhibited by monoclonal antibodies to the human CR type 3 (CR3). In addition, activation of the human alternative pathway of complement by Candida leads to "bystander" deposition of C3 fragments on the surface of autologous, unopsonized RBC, generating the ligands necessary for Candida-RBC rosetting. These results suggest that C. albicans has evolved a unique strategy for acquiring iron from the host, which exploits the host complement system, and which may contribute to the pathogenic potential of the organism.

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