Because previous studies have suggested that lung surfactant is not a simple compartment of homogeneous material, we subfractionated lamellar bodies and components of alveolar lavage from male New Zealand white rabbits, according to differences in sedimentability. We recovered two lamellar body populations at different densities in discontinuous sucrose density gradients; we separated six subfractions of alveolar lavage by differential centrifugation. To determine whether or not precursor-product relationships existed among the subfractions, we injected radioactive palmitate intravenously, killed the rabbits 1-72 h later, and measured phospholipid specific activities. The two populations of lamellar bodies had similar phospholipid composition, fatty acyl composition of phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylglycerol, and surface activity. Light lamellar bodies had a higher ratio of phospholipid to protein, and labelled with tracer later in time than dense ones. For alveolar lavage subfractions, later labelling with tracer, lower adsorption rate and lower total protein and phosphatidylglycerol content seemed to correlate with decreasing average density and particle size as well as with the disappearance of tubular myelin structure and appearance of predominantly vesicular structure. The subfractions appear to be in a metabolic sequence in which heavier, more dense material is a precursor to lighter, less dense material. The results suggest that subfractions of surfactant are extensively recycled.