We hypothesized that agents very different from surfactant may still support lung function. To test this hypothesis, we instilled FC-100, a fluorocarbon, and Tween 20, a detergent, which have higher minimum surface tensions and less hysteresis than surfactant, into 15 full-term and 14 preterm lambs. FC-100 and Tween 20 were as efficient as natural surfactant in improving gas exchange and compliance in preterm lambs with respiratory failure. Dynamic compliance correlated with the equilibrium surface tension of the alveolar wash in both full-term (P less than 0.02) and preterm (P less than 0.008) lambs. Functional residual capacity in full-term and preterm lambs was lower after treatment with the two test agents than with surfactant, findings consistent with qualitative histology. Oxygenation in full-term lambs correlated with mean lung volumes (P less than 0.003), suggesting that the hysteresis and/or low minimum surface tension of surfactant may improve mean lung volume, and hence oxygenation, by maintaining functional residual capacity. The effects of the test agents suggest that agents with biophysical properties different from surfactant may still aid lung expansion.