Pneumocystis carinii remains an important and potentially fatal cause of opportunistic pneumonia. Animal studies reveal that substantial quantities of surfactant protein D (SP-D) accumulate in the airspaces during P. carinii pneumonia and are particularly abundant in aggregates of organisms. Due to the multimeric structure of SP-D, we hypothesized that SP-D mediates aggregation of the organism. From previous clinical studies it is known that aggregated organisms are conspicuous in sections of lung tissue and bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluids of humans with active P. carinii pneumonia. Herein, we observe that SP-D levels increased at least fourfold in BAL fluids of patients with P. carinii pneumonia. Next, a spectrophotometric sedimentation assay was developed to assess the aggregation of P. carinii in vitro by SP-D. P. carinii organisms were first stripped with glutathione to remove bound SP-D and subsequently incubated in the presence of SP-D and 2 mM calcium. P. carinii incubated with natural SP-D (10 μg/ml) containing dodecamers and higher-order forms exhibited aggregation and enhanced sedimentation compared to that of glutathione-stripped P. carinii. Aggregation was also enhanced by the concentrated supernatant of rat BAL fluid, and this effect was abolished by the selective removal of SP-D from the lavage fluid. P. carinii aggregation was reduced by maltose, mannose, and EDTA, consistent with the role of the SP-D C-type lectin domain (CRD) in the aggregation event. Comparisons of different molecular forms of SP-D showed that dodecamers - but not trimeric subunits - mediate optimal aggregation of P. carinii. Aggregation of P. carinii by SP-D was shown to be responsible for the impaired phagocytosis of the organisms by alveolar macrophages. Thus, SP-D-mediated aggregation of P. carinii may represent one means by which the organism avoids elimination by the host.