Activated alveolar macrophages and epithelial type II cells release both nitric oxide and superoxide which react at near diffusion-limited rate (6.7 x 10(9) M-1s-1) to form peroxynitrite, a potent oxidant capable of damaging the alveolar epithelium and pulmonary surfactant. Peroxynitrite, but not nitric oxide or superoxide, readily nitrates phenolic rings including tyrosine. We quantified the presence of nitrotyrosine in the lungs of patients with the adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and in the lungs of rats exposed to hyperoxia (100% O2 for 60 h) using quantitative immunofluorescence. Fresh frozen or paraffin-embedded lung sections were incubated with a polyclonal antibody to nitrotyrosine, followed by goat anti-rabbit IgG coupled to rhodamine. Sections from patients with ARDS (n = 5), or from rats exposed to hyperoxia (n = 4), exhibited a twofold increase of specific binding over controls. This binding was blocked by the addition of an excess amount of nitrotyrosine and was absent when the nitrotyrosine antibody was replaced with nonimmune IgG. In additional experiments we demonstrated nitrotyrosine formation in rat lung sections incubated in vitro with peroxynitrite, but not nitric oxide or reactive oxygen species. These data suggest that toxic levels of peroxynitrite may be formed in the lungs of patients with acute lung injury.