BACKGROUND If lungs could be retrieved for transplantation from non-heart-beating cadavers, the shortage of donors might be significantly alleviated. METHODS We studied the effect of different postmortem lung conditions on pulmonary cell death. Lungs from 208 New Zealand white rabbits were flushed with trypan blue vital dye solution at intervals after circulatory arrest, fixed, and mounted for histologic examination. Pulmonary cells were judged to be viable on the basis of their ability to exclude trypan blue dye. In the control group, lungs were excised immediately after death and immersed in cold (4 degrees C) saline solution. In the other groups, cadavers were left at room temperature with lungs deflated, ventilated with room air or 100% oxygen or 100% nitrogen, or inflated with room air or 100% oxygen. RESULTS There was a gradual increase in percentage (mean +/- SEM) of nonviable cells in the control group from 2.5%+/-0.9% (preischemic value) to 18.1%+/-2.8% at 24 hours after death (p < 0.001). In cadavers with lungs deflated, 79.7%+/-2.1% of cells were nonviable at 24 hours after circulatory arrest (p < 0.001 versus control group). In contrast, room air-ventilated cadavers showed only 21.4%+/-2.7% nonviable cells at this interval (p < 0.001 versus deflated group; not significant versus control group). Values in oxygen-ventilated animals were similar. Nitrogen-ventilated cadavers, however, had significantly more nonviable lung cells (73.8%+/-3.2%; p < 0.001 vs room air and oxygen-ventilated group, not significant vs deflated group). Oxygen-inflated lungs showed a parallel decrease in cell viability up to 4 hours after death when compared with room air-inflated cadaveric lungs, but thereafter more cells became nonviable in the latter group (11.1%+/-0.7% vs 19.6%+/-3.2% at 6 hours and 48.7%+/-7.2% vs 75.5%+/-4.6% at 24 hours, respectively; p < 0.01). CONCLUSIONS Postmortem room air ventilation is as good as oxygen ventilation in delaying pulmonary cell death, and its effect is comparable to cold storage; nitrogen ventilation, however, is ineffective and not different from deflation; oxygen inflation will preserve ischemic cells for longer intervals as opposed to room air inflation. Therefore the alveolar oxygen reserve seems to be the critical factor to protect-the lung parenchyma from warm ischemic damage.