Mammalian metallothionein has been postulated to play a pivotal role in cellular zinc distribution. All seven of its metal atoms are bound with high thermodynamic stability in two clusters buried deeply in the molecule. If the protein is to function in metal delivery, there must be a biological mechanism to facilitate metal release. One means to achieve this would be a labilization of the clusters by interaction of metallothionein with an appropriate cellular ligand. To search for such a mediator, we have designed a rapid radiochromatographic method that can detect changes in the zinc content of 65Zn-labeled metallothionein in response to other biomolecules. Using this methodology, we have established that rabbit liver metallothionein 2 interacts with glutathione disulfide with concomitant release of zinc. Under conditions of pseudo-first-order kinetics, the monophasic reaction depends linearly on the concentration of glutathione disulfide in the range from 5 to 30 mM with a second-order rate constant k = 4.9 x 10(-3)s-1.M-1 (pH 8.6; 25 degrees C). Apparently, zinc release does not involve direct access of glutathione disulfide to the inner coordination sphere of the metals. Rather it appears that the solvent-accessible zinc-bound thiolates in two clefts of each domain of metallothionein [Robbins, A. H., McRee, D. E., Williamson, M., Collett, S. A., Xuong, N. H., Furey, W. F., Wang, B. C. & Stout, C. D. (1991) J. Mol. Biol. 221, 1269-1293] participate in a thiol/disulfide interchange with glutathione disulfide. This rate-limiting initial S-thiolation, which occurs with indistinguishable rates in both clusters, then causes the clusters to collapse and release their zinc. Such a mechanism of metal release would link the control of the metal content of metallothionein to the cellular glutathione redox status and raises important questions about the physiological implications of this observation with regard to a role of glutathione in zinc metabolism and in making zinc available for other biomolecules.