Ventilator-induced lung injury increases proinflammatory cytokines in the adult lung. We asked if positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP) affects proinflammatory cytokine mRNA expression in the preterm lung. Preterm lambs at 129 +/- 3 d gestation were treated with 100 mg/kg recombinant human surfactant protein-C surfactant and ventilated for 2 or 7 h with 0, 4, or 7 cm H(2)O of PEEP. Unventilated fetal lambs were used as controls. Within 2 h of ventilation, alveolar total protein and activated neutrophils were increased and expression of mRNAs for the proinflammatory cytokines interleukin (IL)-1beta, IL-6, IL-8, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) was increased in lung tissue of all ventilated animals relative to unventilated controls. Alveolar protein and neutrophils were higher for 0 and 7 PEEP animals than 4 PEEP animals. IL-1beta, IL-6, and IL-8 mRNAs were significantly elevated in animals ventilated with 0 PEEP compared with 4 PEEP. The percentage fractional area of collapsed alveoli was significantly higher for 0 PEEP compared with 4 and 7 PEEP groups. Mechanical ventilation increased the expression of proinflammatory mediators in surfactant-treated preterm lungs and the use of 4 PEEP minimized this response.