To clarify perinatal transformations of surfactant we performed lung lavage in term fetuses and in 0-24-h-old newborn rabbits. Lavage fluid was separated into three pools, namely lavage pellet, lavage supernatant and cells. We found that at birth the pellet contains 94.1 +/- 1.4% (S.E.) saturated phosphatidylcholine, while the supernatant and cells contain traces of it. At birth the pellet contains secreted lamellar bodies while the supernatant lacks any recognizable structure. After birth, the alveolar saturated phosphatidylcholine level increases 5.1-times in 24 h, the proportions between pools reaching adult values in 90 min (pellet = 75.9 + 4.8%, supernatant = 22.7 +/- 4.9%), and small vesicles appear in the supernatant, probably originating from the turnover of alveolar surfactant during breathing. The saturated phosphatidylcholine associated with cells remains unchanged. At birth, the 32-38 kDa surfactant apolipoprotein appears to be less extensively sialylated than in adult life.