During development, the surface area of the gas-exchange region of the lung can increase by: (1) expansion, (2) subdivision (septation), (3) replication, or (4) change of shape of the basic gas-exchange units (saccules or alveoli). We evaluated the shape of these units in rat lung from birth to adulthood. A shape factor (phi g) was defined in terms of the surface area (Sg) and the volume (Va) of the average unit, using the expression phi g = SgVa-2/3. We studied the lungs of untreated animals and of animals exposed to or treated with hyperoxia (> 95% O2) and/or dexamethasone, each of which is known to inhibit septation in early postnatal life, and with deferoxamine, which protects the lung against the inhibitory effect of hyperoxia. The values found for the shape factor showed no significant difference with regard to age or treatment. This finding suggests that: (1) saccules and alveoli are formed with a certain predetermined shape (close to a hemisphere), (2) any enlargement with time is isotropic, (3) alveolar shape is insensitive to the drastic treatments used, and (4) change of shape is not a mechanism used to increase the gas-exchange surface area of the developing rat lung.