The results of a large number of studies indicate that pulmonary surfactant contains a unique protein whose principal isoform has a molecular weight of about 30,000, and whose presence in surfactant is associated with important metabolic and physicochemical properties. This protein, SP-A, as isolated from canine surfactant, contains a domain of 24 repeating triplets of Gly-X-Y, similar to that found in collagens. These studies were undertaken to determine whether SP-A forms a collagen-like triple helix when in solution, and to describe certain aspects of its size and shape. Our experiments were done on SP-A extracted by two different methods from canine surfactant, and on SP-A produced by molecular cloning. The results from all three preparations were similar. The circular dichroism of the complete protein was characterized by a relatively large negative ellipticity at 205 nm, with a negative shoulder ranging from 215 to 230 nm. There was no positive ellipticity, and the spectrum was not characteristic of collagen. Trypsin hydrolysis resulted in a fragment with peak negative ellipticity at about 200 nm, without the negative shoulder. Further hydrolysis of this fragment with pepsin resulted in a CD spectrum similar to that of collagen. The spectrum of the collagen-like fragment was reversibly sensitive to heating to 50 degrees C, and was irreversibly lost after treatment with bacterial collagenase. SP-A migrated on molecular sieving gels with an equivalent Stokes radius of 110 to 120 A, and had a sedimentation coefficient of 14 S. Using these data we calculate a molecular weight of about 700,000. The hydrodynamic characteristics can be approximated as a prolate ellipsoid of revolution having an axial ratio of about 20. We conclude that SP-A aggregates into a complex of 18 monomers, which may form six triple-helices. The shape of the complex is considerably more globular than collagen and is not consistent with end-to-end binding of the helices to form fibrous structures.