1. This study was designed to test the hypothesis that perinatal suppression of peripheral arterial chemoreceptor inputs attenuates the hypoxic ventilatory response in adult rats. Perinatal suppression of peripheral chemoreceptor activity was achieved by exposing rats to hyperoxia throughout the first month of life. 2. Late-gestation pregnant rats were housed in a 60% O2 environment, exposing the pups to hyperoxia from several days prior to birth until they were returned to normoxia on postnatal day 28. These perinatally treated rats were then reared to adulthood (3-5 months old) in normoxia. In addition to the mother rats, adult male rats were also exposed to hyperoxia, creating an adult-treated control group. Two to four months after the hyperoxic exposure, treated rats were compared with untreated male rats of similar age. 3. A whole-body, flow-through plethysmograph was used to measure hypoxic and hypercapnic ventilatory responses of the unanaesthetized adult rats. In moderate hypoxia (arterial oxygen partial pressure, Pa,O2 approximately 48 mmHg). VE (minute ventilation) and the ratio VE/VCO2 (ventilation relative to CO2 production) increased by 16.7 +/- 4.0 and 35.4 +/- 3.4%, respectively, in perinatal-treated rats (means +/- S.E.M.), but increased more in untreated control rats (51.4 +/- 2.8 and 83.1 +/- 4.3%; both P < 10(-6)). 4. In contrast to the impaired hypoxic ventilatory response, ventilatory responses to hypercapnia (5% CO2) were similar between untreated control and perinatal-treated rats. 5. Impaired hypoxic responsiveness was unique to the perinatal-treated rats since hypoxic ventilatory responses were not attenuated in adult-treated rats. 6. The results indicate that ventilatory responses to hypoxaemia are greatly attenuated in adult rats that had experienced hyperoxia during their first month of life, and suggest that normal hypoxic ventilatory control mechanisms are susceptible to developmental plasticity.