Lung surfactant is a complex mixture of lipids and proteins that coats the alveoli to reduce surface tension and prevent airspace collapse. One of the principal protein constituents, surfactant protein C (SP-C), has been characterized following isolation from human, canine, and bovine sources. In each species, this highly hydrophobic protein is composed of 33-35 amino acids, the differences being due to NH2-terminal heterogeneity. A COOH-terminal leucine is conserved throughout. The cysteines in each species were found by fast atom bombardment mass spectrometry to be present as thioesters of palmitic acid. Acylation of recombinant SP-C with palmityl coenzyme A, followed by characterization before and after release of the acyl group with 1,4-dithiothreitol, provided corroborating evidence for the native structure.