To determine whether the level of fibronectin in lung secretions correlates with the severity of lung injury or with the development of bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or both, serial tracheal aspirate samples were collected from 32 preterm infants with severe respiratory distress syndrome. Levels of total fibronectin, cellular fibronectin, plasma fibronectin, albumin, and secretory component of IgA (SC) were determined for the first 1 to 2 weeks of life in the 14 infants who recovered without pulmonary sequelae, and for weeks 1 to 4 in the 18 infants in whom bronchopulmonary dysplasia developed. Secretory component was chosen as the reference protein because its concentration in lung secretions is minimally influenced by capillary leak and does not vary with gestational or postnatal age. Albumin/SC and plasma fibronectin/SC ratios in tracheal aspirates were significantly higher (p less than 0.05) during the first 2 weeks of life in infants in whom bronchopulmonary dysplasia developed, suggesting greater capillary permeability in these infants. Cellular fibronectin/SC ratios in aspirates from infants with bronchopulmonary dysplasia were also significantly higher in the first 2 weeks, 9.0 +/- 1.7 and 7.4 +/- 2.0 micrograms/microgram SC in weeks 1 and 2, respectively, in comparison with values from infants without bronchopulmonary dysplasia, 1.6 +/- 0.4 and 1.1 +/- 0.8 micrograms/microgram SC (p less than 0.01), suggesting increased synthesis of fibronectin in the lungs of infants with subsequent bronchopulmonary dysplasia. Elevated levels of both plasma and cellular fibronectin in tracheal aspirate samples may provide an early index of the severity of lung injury in infants with severe respiratory distress syndrome.