Osteoclasts secrete tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase (TRAP) to the circulation, where the amount of TRAP is expected to correlate with the bone resorption rate. We have developed two monoclonal antibodies, O1A and J1B, using purified human bone TRAP as antigen. The antibodies recognized different epitopes, allowing us to develop a two-site fluoroimmunoassay. The immunoreactivity in fresh serum specimens was less than 10% of the concentrations measured from the same specimens after 24 h of storage at 4 degrees C, or after addition of 5 mM EDTA or EGTA to them. When fresh serum was gel filtrated using Sephacryl S-200 column, all of the enzyme eluted in the void volume as a complex with a molecular weight of more than 250 kDa. If the serum was treated with EDTA before the gel filtration, the complex was destroyed and the enzyme eluted in fractions corresponding to a molecular weight of 30 kDa, the size of monomeric purified human bone TRAP. The immunoassay was used to measure TRAP concentrations from serum samples that had been stored at 4 degrees C for 24 h. According to the assay, premenopausal women had 13.1 +/- 3.1, postmenopausal women 17.6 +/- 4.2, and children 32.6 +/- 12.2 microg TRAP/l of serum. We conclude that TRAP circulates in the serum as part of a complex, which also contains Ca2+, and that TRAP-immunoassay is a potentially useful method for determining bone resorption rates, as long as the complex is destroyed before the assay.