Biochemical and molecular markers of inflammation, cell proliferation, and pulmonary fibrosis were studied in lungs and bronchoalveolar lavage preparations from Fischer 344 rats at time periods from 3 to 20 days after inhalation of two airborne concentrations (0.18 and 8.2 mg/m3 air) of chrysotile asbestos. Additional groups of animals were examined for lung histopathology and cell proliferation with an antibody to 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine after exposure to asbestos for 5 and 20 days and after 20 days of exposure followed by an additional 20 days in room air. Exposure to chrysotile at the higher concentration caused protracted increases in steady-state mRNA levels of manganese-containing superoxide dismutase and elevation in glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase mRNA at 3 days, but levels of mRNAs encoding copper-zinc-containing superoxide dismutase, ornithine decarboxylase, and the proto-oncogene, c-jun were not statistically elevated from levels occurring in lung homogenates from sham control rats. Differential cell counts in bronchoalveolar lavage revealed an early infiltration of neutrophils that correlated with focal areas of increased cellularity and fibrosis in rat lungs at the higher concentrations of asbestos. However, elevations in lung hydroxyproline were not observed. Significant increases in epithelial cells of the bronchi, the interstitial compartment of the lung, and mesothelial cells incorporating 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine, an indication of DNA synthesis, were noted in the higher chrysotile group at 5 days, but labeling in all cell compartments was comparable with that occurring in sham controls at later time points. Indicators of inflammation, increased cell proliferation, and pulmonary fibrosis were not observed in the lungs of rats exposed to the lower concentration of chrysotile. Thus, results indicate that cellular and molecular markers of inflammation and proliferation in lung are dose-related and indicative of the histopathological development of asbestosis.