The effects of different levels of positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP) (zero to 15 cm H2O) on the static inflation volume-pressure (V-P) curve of the respiratory system and on gas exchange were studied in eight patients with the adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Alveolar recruitment with PEEP was quantified in terms of recruited volume, i.e., as difference in lung volume between PEEP and zero end-expiratory pressure (ZEEP) for the same static inflation pressure (20 cm H2O) from the V-P curves obtained at the different PEEP levels. In addition, static compliance of the respiratory system at fixed tidal volume (0.7 L) was determined at the different PEEP levels. The results suggest that: (1) in some patients with ARDS the V-P curves determined on ZEEP exhibit an upward concavity reflecting progressive alveolar recruitment with increasing inflation volume, and PEEP results in alveolar recruitment (range of recruited volume at 15 cm H2O of PEEP: 0.11 to 0.36 L); (2) in other patients with ARDS the V-P curves on ZEEP are characterized by an upward convexity, and PEEP results in a volume displacement along this curve without alveolar recruitment and with enhanced risk of barotrauma; (3) the PEEP-induced increase in arterial oxygenation is significantly correlated to the recruited volume but not to the changes in static compliance. The shape of the static inflation V-P curves on ZEEP allows the prediction of alveolar recruitment with PEEP.