Instillation of surfactant into the trachea of preterm infants with respiratory distress syndrome is associated with a 90% incidence of patent ductus arteriosus. We studied the effects of surfactant therapy on the ductus arteriosus in 12 preterm lambs. Flow across the ductus arteriosus and systemic blood flow were calculated from radioactive microsphere injections. All developed respiratory failure (pH less than 7.1, Paco2 greater than 60) by 30 minutes after birth. Between 30 and 60 minutes after birth, six lambs were treated with tracheal instillation of 50 mg/kg surfactant lipid. By two hours after birth, treated lambs differed significantly from controls in pH (7.27 +0.02 vs 6.97 +0.08) and Paco2 (43.3 +4.1 vs 85 + 15). There were no differences in Pao2 or PGE2 concentrations or ductus arteriosus resistance, but there was a significantly larger shunt through the ductus arteriosus in treated lambs. This increased shunt resulted from the significant drop in pulmonary vascular resistance and not from a change in patency of the ductus arteriosus. Surfactant replacement may require interventions directed specifically at the patent ductus arteriosus in sick preterm infants.