The molecular structure of the phospholipid component of intact pulmonary surfactant isolated from bovine lung lavage has been examined by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. Two different physical states of the surfactant were examined by means of different infrared spectroscopic sampling techniques. Transmission infrared experiments were used to study the surfactant in the bulk phase. In these experiments, the thermotropic behavior of the bulk surfactant was monitored by temperature-induced variations in the phospholipid acyl chain CH2 stretching frequencies. A broad phase transition (confirmed by differential scanning calorimetry) was noted with an onset temperature near 15 degrees C and a completion temperature near 42 degrees C. In addition to the bulk transmission experiments, external reflection infrared spectroscopy was used to examine surfactant films in situ at the air-water interface. As surface pressure was increased from 0 to 43 dyn/cm, a gradual and continuous decrease in the CH2 stretching frequency was noted for the surfactant. Thus, under surface pressures which correspond to large lung volumes in vivo, the surfactant acyl chains exist mostly in the ordered (trans) configuration. The frequency shift in the CH2 stretching mode is consistent with a continuous ordering of the acyl chains upon compression over the pressure range 0–43 dyn/cm, and implies that a weakly cooperative phase transition occurs in the hydrocarbon region of the surface film. The surface film transition is especially noted in the pressure-area curve of the surfactant and approximates in two dimensions the broad thermotropic phase transition of the bulk phase surfactant.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS) © 1989, The Biophysical Society. All rights reserved.