The alveolar surface of the lung is lined by two classes of epithelial cells, type I and type II cells. Type I cells cover more than 97% of the alveolar surface. Although this cell type is felt to be essential for normal gas exchange, neither unique identifying characteristics nor functions have been described for the type I cell. We have produced monoclonal antibodies to (a) component(s) of molecular weight 40,000 and 42,000 of the apical surface of rat alveolar type I cells. The antibodies are specific to the lung in Western blots of organ homogenates. In immunocytochemical studies of frozen lung at the level of both light and electron microscopy, the monoclonal antibodies appear to react specifically with the apical plasma membrane of type I cells. Airway, vascular, interstitial cells, type II cells and macrophages are not immunoreactive. Western blots of isolated type I cells (approx. 70% pure) also demonstrate immunoreactivity at molecular weights of 40,000 and 42,000. When the lung is injured, type I cells may be damaged and sloughed from the alveolar surface. Alveolar repair occurs when the second type of alveolar cell, the type II cell, divides. Cell progeny may retain type II cell morphology or may differentiate into type I cells. Western blots of freshly isolated type II cells (approx. 85% pure) do not display immunoreactivity with our monoclonal antibodies. However, type II cells maintained in culture acquire immunoreactivity to monoclonal antibodies, demonstrating that type II cells in vitro have the capacity to develop a characteristic associated with type I cells in situ. The availability of markers for a specific membrane component of type I cells should facilitate the study of many questions on alveolar functions, development and response to injury.