The acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is a frequent, life-threatening disease in which a marked increase in alveolar surface tension has been repeatedly observed. It is caused by factors including a lack of surface-active compounds, changes in the phospholipid, fatty acid, neutral lipid, and surfactant apoprotein composition, imbalance of the extracellular surfactant subtype distribution, inhibition of surfactant function by plasma protein leakage, incorporation of surfactant phospholipids and apoproteins into polymerizing fibrin, and damage/inhibition of surfactant compounds by inflammatory mediators. There is now good evidence that these surfactant abnormalities promote alveolar instability and collapse and, consequently, loss of compliance and the profound gas exchange abnormalities seen in ARDS. An acute improvement of gas exchange properties together with a far-reaching restoration of surfactant properties was encountered in recently performed pilot studies. Here we summarize what is known about the kind and severity of surfactant changes occurring in ARDS, the contribution of these changes to lung failure, and the role of surfactant administration for therapy of ARDS.