Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) is a multifactorial developmental disease caused by lung immaturity and presenting as high-permeability lung edema ("hyaline membrane disease"). It is characterized by a transient deficiency of alveolar surfactant during the first week of life. During the first few days of life, the alveolar surfactant pool size increases up to that in the controls. The allelic variants of the genes encoding the surfactant proteins (SP) SP-A1, SP-A2, SP-B, and SP-C have been associated with RDS. The main SP-A haplotype, interactively with the SP-B Ile131Thr polymorphism and with constitutional and environmental factors, influence the risk. Case reports on mutations with partially functional SP-B have been published. The genetic susceptibility factors depend on the degree of prematurity at birth, consistent with sequential differentiation of the lung and gestation-dependent differences in clinical presentation. The preferentially type 2 cell expressed genes involved in critical functions (such as ATP-binding cassette transporter, ABCA3), those involved in susceptibility to acute lung damage, and those with known susceptibility to other severe lung diseases (such as G protein-coupled receptor for asthma susceptibility, GPR154 alias GPRA) will possibly serve as candidate genes in future studies. RDS associated with near-term and term births may have a different genetic predisposition and pathogenesis compared to RDS after very preterm birth. As we learn more about the molecular consequences of allelic variation, new therapies based on a new generation of surfactant diagnostics and individualized therapies may follow.