The content of dipalmitoyl phophatidylcholine (DPPC) in the phosphatidylcholine (PC) fraction of calf lung surfactant extract (CLSE) is measured by gas chromatography (GC) and estimated from the widely used osmium tetroxide assay for disaturated phosphatidylcholine (DSPC). The surface-active properties of model phospholipid/apoprotein surfactants with varying DPPC content are also defined and compared relative to CLSE. GC analysis of fatty acids in PC isolated from CLSE indicated a possible range of 30 to 65% for DPPC content depending on C16:0 fatty chain mismatching, and further studies using phospholipase A2 treatment indicated an actual DPPC content < or = 41%. The osmium tetroxide assay gave a very high value of 70% for the DSPC content of surfactant PC, and experiments with synthetic phospholipids demonstrated that this assay responded inappropriately in the presence of monounsaturated PC, leading to falsely elevated DSPC values. The influence of DPPC content on adsorption and film behavior was investigated in model surfactants containing 40, 60, and 80% DPPC (DPPC/egg PC/egg PG, 40:50:10, 60:30:10, and 80:10:10 by mol) combined with 1.3% hydrophobic surfactant protein (SP)-B and -C. The biophysical properties of the model surfactant with 40% DPPC were found to be closer to CLSE than those of mixtures with 60 or 80% DPPC. The adsorption of dispersions containing 40% DPPC with 1.3% SP-B, C was almost identical to CLSE and was improved in rate and magnitude compared with the mixtures with higher DPPC content (60 or 80%). In Wilhelmy balance studies of cycled films, respreading was increased and maximum surface pressure was decreased for the 40% versus higher DPPC content mixtures, again approaching CLSE in behavior. All synthetic phospholipid (SPL):SP mixtures lowered surface tension to < 1 mN/m in oscillating bubble studies at physiologic cycling rate (20 cpm), but the 40% DPPC mixture had a time dependent most closely matching that of CLSE. Our measured DPPC content near 40% for lung surfactant PC, and the similarly high activity of a related synthetic phospholipid/apoprotein model mixture, suggest that exogenous surfactants with relatively low DPPC contents might be important for future study and development.