The oleic acid (OA) model of acute lung injury in rats is characterized by a massive and rapid influx of polymorphonuclear neutrophils (PMN) within 1 h, with a peak inflammatory response at 4 h and resolution by 72 h. We hypothesized that PMN apoptosis is involved in the resolution of OA-induced acute lung injury. To test this hypothesis, healthy adult Fischer 344 rats were given 30 microl OA in 0.1% bovine serum albumin (BSA) intravenously; controls were given BSA alone and killed at 1, 4, 24, and 72 h after OA to obtain bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) and lung tissue. Cell pellets from BALF and formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissue section samples were processed for terminal deoxyribonucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end labeling (TUNEL) to identify apoptotic cells. Propidium iodide was used to counterstain nuclei. Percentage of nuclei undergoing apoptosis was counted under a fluorescent microscope. Control rats showed only resident alveolar macrophages (AM) in the BALF with no apoptosis. At the peak of injury, 1 h and 4 h after OA injection, we observed a massive PMN response without any evidence of apoptosis. At 24 h, when the OA injury is clinically and histologically in early resolution, we observed intense apoptosis of PMN nuclei along with evidence of apoptotic bodies in the cytoplasm of AM. Some of the AM also showed apoptotic nuclei at 72 h. Similar observations were made in the lung tissue sections. The results of the TUNEL assay were confirmed by DNA ladders and electron microscopy. We conclude that apoptosis of PMN and clearance by AM is an important mechanism in resolution of OA- induced acute lung injury.