The aim of this study was to characterize early ultrastructural, biochemical, and functional alterations of the pulmonary surfactant system induced by Salmonella minnesota lipopolysaccharide (LPS) in rat lungs. Experimental groups were: (1) control in vitro, 150 min perfusion; (2) LPS in vitro, 150 min perfusion, infusion of 50 microg/ml LPS after 40 min; (3) control ex vivo, 10 min perfusion; (4) LPS ex vivo, lungs perfused for 10 min from rats treated for 110 min with 20 mg/kg LPS intraperitoneally. Morphometry of type II pneumocytes showed that LPS increased stored surfactant. Lamellar bodies were increased in size, but decreased in numerical density, suggesting that giant lamellar bodies observed in LPS-treated lungs may result from fusion of normal bodies. Structural analysis of alveolar surfactant composition showed that LPS elicited an increase in lamellar body-like and multilamellar forms. Bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) material from LPS-treated lungs was decreased in phospholipids. BAL bubble surfactometer analysis showed a reduction in hysteresis area caused by LPS. We conclude that LPS leads to alterations of intracellular and alveolar surfactant within 2 h: fusion of lamellar bodies, reduction in surfactant secretion, and changes in alveolar surfactant transformation, composition, and function, which may contribute to the development of respiratory distress.