The major goals of this study were to define the relationships between intrapulmonary and systemic inflammatory responses in animals with gram-negative pneumonia. We treated rabbits with intrapulmonary Escherichia coli (1 x 10(7) to 1 x 10(10) cfu/ml), and then measured physiologic, cellular, and molecular events in the lungs and systemic circulation for 24 h. The treatment protocols resulted in groups of animals that mimicked the stages of the septic inflammatory response in humans. Animals treated with low inocula had systemic changes consistent with systemic inflammatory response syndrome and cleared the bacteria and inflammatory products from the lungs. Animals treated with high inocula failed to clear bacteria from the lungs, had severe intrapulmonary inflammatory responses, and developed septic shock. Intrapulmonary leukocyte recruitment was directly related to the size of the bacterial inoculum, but lung protein accumulation was not. Tumor neurosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha), interleukin-8 (IL-8), and GRO were detectable in lung lavage fluid at 4 h and declined by 24 h in animals that cleared intrapulmonary E. coli. In contrast, lavage TNF-alpha, IL-8, and GRO increased over 24 h in animals that failed to clear intrapulmonary bacteria. MCP-1 increased between 4 h and 24 h in the lungs of all of the animals as the histologic response evolved from neutrophilic to mononuclear cell predominance. Thus, the intensity of systemic inflammatory and physiologic responses to intrapulmonary gram-negative infection depends on the inoculum size and whether the bacteria are cleared from or proliferate in the lungs. The results provide experimental support for the recently proposed classification of septic responses in humans.