1. The alveolocapillary membrane faces an extraordinary task in partitioning the plasma and lung hypophase proteins, with a surface area approximately 50-fold that of the body and only 0.1-0.2 micron thick. 2. Lung permeability is compromised under a variety of circumstances and the delineation between physiological and pathological changes in permeability is not always clear. Although the tight junctions of the epithelium, rather than the endothelium, are regarded as the major barrier to fluid and protein flux, it is becoming apparent that the permeability of both are dynamically regulated. 3. Whereas increased permeability and the flux of plasma proteins into the alveolar compartment has dire consequences, fortuitously the flux of surfactant proteins from the airspaces into the circulation may provide a sensitive means of non-invasively monitoring the lung, with important implications for treatment modalities. 4. Surfactant proteins are unique in that they are present in the alveolar hypophase in high concentrations. They diffuse down their vast concentration gradients (approximately 1:1500-7000) into the circulation in a manner that reflects lung function and injury score. Surfactant proteins vary markedly in size (approximately 20-650 kDa) and changes in the relative amounts appear particularly diagnostic with regard to disease severity. Alveolar levels of surfactant proteins remain remarkably constant despite respiratory disease and, unlike the flux of plasma proteins into the alveolus, which may reach equilibrium in acute lung injury, the flux of surfactant proteins is unidirectional because of the concentration gradient and because they are rapidly cleared from the circulation. 5. Ultimately, the diagnostic usefulness of surfactant proteins as markers of alveolocapillary permeability will demand a sound understanding of their kinetics through the vascular compartment.