The lungs are the remote organ most commonly affected in human peritonitis. The major goals of this study were to define the dose- and time- dependent relationship between graded septic peritonitis and systemic and pulmonary inflammatory responses in mice. BALB/c mice were treated with intraperitoneal polymicrobial inoculi and sacrificed at 3, 12, and 24 h. The treatment protocol resulted in distinct groups of animals with respect to mortality rate, kinetics, and concentrations of a broad spectrum of pro- and anti-inflammatory endogenous mediators, intrapulmonary bacterial accumulation, and static lung compliance. In sublethally infected mice, pulmonary bacterial proliferation was controlled. Levels of monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 (MCP-1), interleukin-10, interleukin-6, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF), and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) in plasma were elevated 3 h after infection exclusively. At 3 h, MCP-1, gamma interferon, and TNF were detected in extracts of pulmonary tissue or in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluid. Static lung compliance (C(st)) was transiently decreased at 12 h. In contrast, in lethally infected mice pulmonary bacterial proliferation was not contained. Concentrations of MCP-1, G-CSF, and TNF in plasma were maximal at 24 h, as were pulmonary MCP-1 levels. Lung myeloperoxidase activity was increased at 3, 12, and 24 h. C(st) was reduced after 3 h and did not reach control values at 24 h. Pulmonary cyclooxygenase-2 mRNA and eicosanoids in BAL fluid and plasma were elevated at 3 and 24 h. This study shows that polymicrobial peritonitis in mice leads to dose-dependent systemic and pulmonary inflammation accompanied by a decrease in lung compliance.