The effects of alveolar large aggregate (LA) and small aggregate (SA) surfactant subfractions isolated from healthy adult rats on mitogen-stimulated proliferative responses of human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) was examined. Various concentrations of total surfactant suppressed proliferation of stimulated lymphocytes by up to 95% of mitogen-stimulated cells alone. LA subfractions of total surfactant had no effect on proliferation, whereas SA significantly enhanced the lymphocyte proliferation at lower concentrations (7.8 microg/ml) compared to mitogen-stimulated cells alone. Higher concentrations of SA (62.5 microg/ml) inhibited lymphocyte proliferation. This concentration-dependent effect of SA on proliferation of PBMC was also present when cells were stimulated with various lectins including anti-CD3, concanavalin A and phytohemagglutinin. Analysis of the supernatant of mitogen-stimulated cell cultures treated with inhibitory concentrations of SA showed decreased amounts of interleukin (IL)-2, compared to cells alone, which could be reversed by adding exogenous IL-2 to the cell cultures with the SA. These results suggest that alveolar surfactant subfractions have distinct functions within the alveoli, both biophysically and with respect to their effects on the host's immunomodulatory responses.