Increased nitric oxide (NO) production plays a critical role in the mammalian pulmonary vascular adaptation to extrauterine life. NO activates soluble guanylate cyclase, increasing intracellular cGMP concentrations, thereby inducing relaxation of vascular smooth muscle. cGMP is inactivated by cyclic nucleotide phosphodiesterases (PDEs). One PDE isozyme, PDE5, specifically hydrolyzes cGMP, is abundant in lung tissues, and modifies the pulmonary vasodilatory response to exogenous NO. To investigate the regulation of PDE5 gene expression during pulmonary development, PDE5 mRNA levels, as well as cGMP-metabolizing PDE enzyme activity, were measured in the lungs of perinatal and adult rats. RNA blot hybridization revealed that PDE5 mRNA was detectable in fetal lung tissue as early as 18.5 d of the 22-d term gestation and reached maximal levels in neonatal lungs. mRNA levels in adult rat lungs were 3-4-fold less than the levels measured in lungs of 1- and 8-d-old rats. Pulmonary cGMP hydrolytic activity in 1-d-old animals was 30-fold greater than the cGMP hydrolytic activity of adult rat lungs. Zaprinast, a specific PDE5 antagonist, inhibited 52 and 56% of cGMP hydrolytic activity in lungs of 1- and 8-d-old rats, respectively, but only 18% of the activity in adult lungs. In situ hybridization revealed that PDE5 mRNA transcripts were present in the vascular smooth muscle cells of neonatal and adult lungs. PDE5 mRNA was also detected in the alveolar walls of neonatal rat lungs. These results demonstrate that the gene encoding PDE5 is abundantly expressed in the lungs of perinatal rats, and is available to participate in the mammalian pulmonary vascular transition to extrauterine life. Extravascular PDE5 gene expression in neonatal lungs suggests a potentially important nonvascular role for this enzyme during pulmonary development.