Gastrin-releasing peptide (GRP) is developmentally expressed in human fetal lung and is a growth factor for normal and neoplastic lung but its role in normal lung development has yet to be clearly defined. In this study we have characterized the expression of GRP and its receptor in fetal rhesus monkey lung and determined the effects of bombesin on fetal lung development in vitro. By RNA blot analysis, GRP mRNA was first detectable in fetal monkey lung at 63 days gestation, reached highest levels at 80 days gestation, and then declined to near adult levels by 120 days gestation; a pattern closely paralleling GRP expression in human fetal lung. As in human lung, in situ hybridization localized GRP mRNA to neuroendocrine cells though during the canalicular phase of development (between 63-80 days gestation) GRP mRNA was present not only in classic pulmonary neuroendocrine cells, but also in cells of budding airways. Immunohistochemistry showed that bombesin-like immunoreactivity was present in neuroendocrine cells, but not in budding airways, suggesting that in budding airways either the GRP mRNA is not translated, is rapidly secreted, or a related, but different RNA is present. RNase protection analysis using a probe to the monkey GRP receptor demonstrated that the time course of receptor RNA expression closely paralleled the time course of GRP RNA expression. In situ hybridization showed that GRP receptors were primarily expressed in epithelial cells of the developing airways. Thus GRP would appear to be secreted from neuroendocrine cells to act on target cells in developing airways. This hypothesis was confirmed by organ culture of fetal monkey lung in the presence of bombesin and bombesin antagonists. Bombesin treatment at 1 and 10 nM significantly increased DNA synthesis in airway epithelial cells and significantly increased the number and size of airways in cultured fetal lung. In fact, culturing 60 d fetal lung for 5 d with 10 nM bombesin increased airway size and number nearly to that observed in cultured 80 d fetal lung. The effects of bombesin could be blocked by specific GRP receptor antagonists. Thus this study demonstrates that GRP receptors are expressed on airway epithelial cells in developing fetal lung and that the interaction of GRP with the GRP receptor stimulates airway development.