The synthesis of Cu,Zn SOD by rat lung increases spontaneously in the fetus in late gestation and during exposure of neonatal and adult rats to greater than 95% O2. To explore the regulation of these increases, we measured rat lung Cu,Zn SOD synthesis and activity. We also cloned and sequenced a rat lung Cu,Zn SOD cDNA that was used to measure Cu,Zn SOD mRNA concentration. We found that (a) under normal gestational and postgestational conditions the synthesis of this enzyme was regulated pretranslationally; (b) the increased synthesis that occurs under hyperoxia (greater than 95% O2), was pretranslationally mediated in otherwise unmanipulated neonatal rats but translationally controlled in hyperoxic adult rats; and (c) in lungs of rats made tolerant to greater than 95% O2 by allowing 24 h rest in air after an initial 48 h in greater than 95% O2, the increased Cu,Zn SOD synthesis that occurred during the second period of hyperoxia was regulated pretranslationally. We conclude Cu,Zn SOD gene expression in the lung is developmentally regulated under normal conditions and in response to an oxidant challenge. Tolerance, whether endogenous or induced, appears to require the accumulation of increased amounts of Cu,Zn SOD mRNA.