Pulmonary surfactant is a barrier material of the lungs and has a dual role: firstly, as a true surfactant, lowering the surface tension; and secondly, participating in innate immune defence of the lung and possibly other mucosal surfaces. Surfactant is composed of approximately 90% lipids and 10% proteins. There are four surfactant-specific proteins, designated surfactant protein A (SP-A), SP-B, SP-C and SP-D. Although the sequences and post-translational modifications of SP-B and SP-C are quite conserved between mammalian species, variations exist. The hydrophilic surfactant proteins SP-A and SP-D are members of a family of collagenous carbohydrate binding proteins, known as collectins, consisting of oligomers of trimeric subunits. In view of the different roles of surfactant proteins, studies determining the structure-function relationships of surfactant proteins across the animal kingdom will be very interesting. Such studies may reveal structural elements of the proteins required for surface film dynamics as well as those required for innate immune defence. Since SP-A and SP-D are also present in extrapulmonary tissues, the hydrophobic surfactant proteins SP-B and SP-C may be the most appropriate indicators for the evolutionary origin of surfactant. SP-B is essential for air-breathing in mammals and is therefore largely conserved. Yet, because of its unique structure and its localization in the lung but not in extrapulmonary tissues, SP-C may be the most important indicator for the evolutionary origin of surfactant.