The developmental expression of catalase, superoxide dismutase (both Mn-SOD and Cu/Zn-SOD) and glutathione peroxide activities were determined in human lung and liver from 10 wk gestation to 3 months following birth. Pulmonary superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase activities did not change appreciably over this period. Catalase activity however, increased from 20.9 +/- 7.8 U/mg protein (n = 29) at 11-20 wk gestation to 73 +/- 27.5 U/mg protein (n = 30; P less than 0.001) following normal delivery (41-60 wk post-conceptual age). Lung catalase activity was temporally associated with the late gestational increase in the fractional content of lung DPPC (r = 0.79, P less than 0.01). In contrast with the lung, liver total superoxide dismutase activity increased from 2.5 +/- 0.6 U/mg protein (n = 27) between 11 and 20 wk gestation to 9.4 +/- 4.4 U/mg protein after term (n = 22; P less than 0.001). Since hepatic Mn-superoxide dismutase activity did not change over this period, the increase was attributed to elevated expression of Cu/Zn-superoxide dismutase. Liver glutathione peroxidase activities remained relatively constant during the same period, while hepatic catalase activity, although constant during gestation (60 +/- 15.6 microU/mg protein), increased significantly following birth (99.7 +/- 33.0 microU/mg protein; P less than 0.001). These results demonstrate that the developmental expression of antioxidant enzymes differs between tissues and that, unlike many commonly used laboratory species, only increased expression of catalase activity is associated with human lung development.