The possibility that the lipoprotein complex of lung surfactant functions in pulmonary host defense as well as lowering surface tension at the air-liquid interface has been the subject of renewed interest in light of the finding that surfactant proteins A and D (SP-A and SP-D) are members of a family of proteins known as collectins. The collectins, so named because they have in common an NH2-terminal collagen-like domain and a COOH-terminal lectin (carbohydrate binding) domain, are found in both lung and serum and participate in "innate" immunity, acting before induction of an antibody-mediated response. In vitro, many of the collectins stimulate phagocytosis, chemotaxis, and production of reactive oxygen and regulate cytokine release by immune cells. It has been known for several years that surfactant lipids suppress a variety of immune cell functions, most notably lymphocyte proliferation, which, conversely, is augmented by SP-A. Thus surfactant lipids and proteins may be counterregulatory, and changes in lipid-to-protein ratios may be important in regulating the immune status of the lung. That these ratios change in disease states is clear, but it is not known whether the alterations are a cause or an effect. Important future studies with mice in which the SP-A and SP-D genes have been ablated will help clarify the role of surfactant in immune function.