To test the hypothesis that activity of respiratory muscles determines regional growth of lung parenchyma, we studied the effects of unilateral diaphragmatic paralysis on contralateral/ipsilateral lung growth in cats and piglets. Five 10- to 12-wk-old cats and five 8-wk-old piglets underwent unilateral diaphragmatic paralysis by thoracic and cervical phrenectomy, respectively. Five to seven weeks after surgery, when the cats were killed for studies of lung growth, gain in body weight was the same as in five sham-operated controls. At this time, mean pleural pressure ipsilateral to the paralyzed hemidiaphragm was the same as contralateral mean pleural pressure during tidal breathing, and values did not differ from controls. However overall functional residual capacity was lower in the phrenectomized cats (35 +/- 4 ml) than in the controls (55 +/- 11 ml, P less than 0.01). Growth of contralateral lungs relative to ipsilateral lungs was greater in the phrenectomized cats than in the controls, as shown by ratios of contralateral/ipsilateral wet lung weight (1.44 vs. 1.34, P less than 0.01), maximum inflation volume (1.53 vs. 1.33, P less than 0.05), and total protein content (1.45 vs. 1.26, P less than 0.05). Ratios of total protein to DNA and RNA to DNA were unchanged. One week after surgery in the piglets, the ratio of contralateral/ipsilateral wet lung weight was increased (1.61 vs. 1.29, P less than 0.01) and total weight of both lungs was reduced. We conclude that regional growth of lung parenchyma by cell proliferation depends in part on regional distribution of respiratory muscle activity.