Adult hamsters were exposed to 100% oxygen for up to 8 days. At time of death lung tissue was analyzed for the expression of surfactant protein (SP) genes, and surfactant was isolated from alveolar lavage fluid. Surfactant was analyzed for the composition of proteins and phospholipids and for its surface properties. We found, over the 8 days of exposure, that an alveolitis composed of polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMNs) and alveolar macrophages, accompanied by exudation of edema fluid, appeared in the alveolar spaces. The steady-state levels of SP mRNAs declined after 8 days of exposure to 100% oxygen, but the patterns indicated individual genetic control. SP-A was elevated early in the course of the hyperoxic exposure but decreased significantly by day 8; SP-B decreased continuously; SP-C was unchanged (or slightly elevated) through day 2 and then declined. The amounts of recoverable lavage surfactant increased by greater than threefold, and the phospholipid composition showed increasing percentages of disaturated phosphatidylcholine. All surfactants lowered surface tension to less than 10 dyn/cm, but the adsorption rates decreased as exposure progressed. The results indicate that lung injury induced by 100% oxygen is accompanied by altered patterns of surfactant metabolism, possibly because of a changing type II cell phenotype or alterations in Clara cell-derived surfactant. These changes may result in perturbed physiological function contributing to decreased lung compliance.