To determine whether small hydrophobic surfactant peptides (SP-B and SP-C) participate in recycling of pulmonary surfactant phospholipid, we determined the effect of these peptides on transfer of 3H- or 14C-labelled phosphatidylcholine from liposomes to isolated rat alveolar Type II cells and Chinese hamster lung fibroblasts. Both natural and synthetic SP-B and SP-C markedly stimulated phosphatidylcholine transfer to alveolar Type II cells and Chinese hamster lung fibroblasts in a dose- and time-dependent fashion. Effects of the peptides on phospholipid uptake were dose-dependent, but not saturable and occurred at both 4 and 37 degrees C. Uptake of labelled phospholipid into a lamellar body fraction prepared from Type II cells was augmented in the presence of SP-B. Neither SP-B nor SP-C augmented exchange of labelled plasma membrane phosphatidylcholine from isolated Type II cells or enhanced the release of surfactant phospholipid when compared to liposomes without SP-B or SP-C. Addition of native bovine SP-B and SP-C to the phospholipid vesicles perturbed the size and structure of the vesicles as determined by electron microscopy. To determine the structural elements responsible for the effect of the peptides on phospholipid uptake, fragments of SP-B were synthesized by solid-phase protein synthesis and their effects on phospholipid uptake assessed in Type II epithelial cells. SP-B (1-60) stimulated phospholipid uptake 7-fold. A smaller fragment of SP-B (15-60) was less active and the SP-B peptide (40-60) failed to augment phospholipid uptake significantly. Like SP-B and SP-C, surfactant-associated protein (SP-A) enhanced phospholipid uptake by Type II cells. However, SP-A failed to significantly stimulate phosphatidylcholine uptake by Chinese hamster lung fibroblasts. These studies demonstrate the independent activity of surfactant proteins SP-B and SP-C on the uptake of phospholipid by Type II epithelial cells and Chinese hamster lung fibroblasts in vitro.