We undertook studies in the isolated perfused rat lung to determine 1) the effects of endothelial charge neutralization with the polycation protamine sulfate on microvascular permeability, lung water, and anionic ferritin binding to the endothelium and 2) the role of heparan sulfate and hyaluronate, negatively charged cell surface glycosaminoglycans, on permeability. Capillary permeability was determined by tissue 125I-albumin accumulation in isolated perfused rat lungs. In control lungs the 5-min albumin uptake was 0.50 +/- 0.05 cm3.s-1.g dry tissue-1 X 10(-3). It was increased by 132 +/- 7.8% (P less than 0.001) by protamine (0.08 mg/ml) and 65 +/- 12% (P less than 0.01) by heparinase (5 U/ml), whereas hyaluronidase (25 NFU/ml) was without effect. In control lungs total water was 4.83 +/- 0.15 ml g/dry tissue. Protamine increased lung water 12 +/- 2% (P less than 0.05). Heparinase caused a 9 +/- 3% increase (P less than 0.05), and hyaluronidase had no effect. Electron microscopy demonstrated that protamine increased anionic ferritin binding to the surface of endothelial cells. We conclude that protamine sulfate neutralization of negative charge in the pulmonary microcirculation leads to increased microvascular permeability. Heparin sulfate may be responsible for this charge effect.