To help to evaluate the role of metallothionein (MT) in peripheral-blood leucocytes, we examined MT protein and mRNA levels in these cells before and after exposure to CdCl2 in culture. Protein was assayed by 109Cd2+ binding, and RNA by dot-blot hybridization. MT was induced in both lymphocytes and adherent monocytes about 10-fold with a 12 h exposure to 10 microM-CdCl2, but absolute levels were 3-fold higher in monocytes: 57 x 10(5) (+Cd2+) versus 6 x 10(5) (-Cd2+) molecules/cell for monocytes; 18 x 10(5) (+Cd2+) versus 2 x 10(5) (-Cd2+) for lymphocytes. Polymorphonuclear cells expressed relatively little MT (0.6 x 10(5) molecules/cell), and this did not change with phorbol ester stimulation or exposure to Cd2+, arguing against a direct protective role for MT in activated neutrophils. MT mRNA levels corresponded qualitatively to expression of protein in these cells. Our data provide quantitative comparisons of leucocyte MT expression and regulation in the human population. Variation in both basal and induced MT mRNA levels reflects environmental or experimental (intra-individual) and possibly genetic (inter-individual) differences.