BACKGROUND: Although bronchopulmonary dysplasia is closely associated with an arrest of alveolar development and pulmonary capillary dysplasia, it is unknown whether these two features are causally related. To investigate the relationship between pulmonary capillaries and alveolar formation, we partially embolized the pulmonary capillary bed. METHODS: Partial pulmonary embolization (PPE) was induced in chronically catheterized fetal sheep by injection of microspheres into the left pulmonary artery for 1 day (1d PPE; 115d gestational age; GA) or 5 days (5d PPE; 110-115d GA). Control fetuses received vehicle injections. Lung morphology, secondary septal crests, elastin, collagen, myofibroblast, PECAM1 and HIF1 alpha abundance and localization were determined histologically. VEGF-A, Flk-1, PDGF-A and PDGF-R alpha mRNA levels were measured using real-time PCR. RESULTS: At 130d GA (term approximately 147d), in embolized regions of the lung the percentage of lung occupied by tissue was increased from 29 +/- 1 in controls to 35 +/- 1 in 1d PPE and 44 +/- 1 in 5d PPE fetuses (p <0.001). Secondary septal crest density was reduced from 8 +/- 0 in controls to 5 +/- 0 in 1d PPE and 4 +/- 0 in 5d PPE fetuses (p <0.05), indicating impaired alveolar formation.