The interaction of injected zinc and cadmium with metallothionein was investigated in newborn rats. Tissues of 5-day-old rats were removed 24 h after a single injection (Sc) of saline or zinc (20 mg/kg, body wt.) or cadmium (1 mg/kg, body wt.) with 2.5 muCi of 65Zn or 109Cd or 5 muCi of [35S]-cysteine. Injection of zinc resulted in a 75% increase in the hepatic zinc concentration with a concomitant elevation of metallothionein (P less than 0.001), zinc in metallothionein increased by 45% (P less than 0.05); [35S]cysteine incorporation indicated the induced synthesis of metallothionein. Injection of cadmium did not alter either metallothionein or zinc levels in liver, but cadmium in cytosol was preferentially bound to metallothionein. Neither treatment altered hepatic copper metabolism and copper in metallothionein, nor renal zinc and metallothionein levels. These data indicate that zinc injection can elevate hepatic zinc levels and induce metallothionein synthesis in newborn rats despite high basal levels; cadmium injection does not induce metallothionein synthesis, though cadmium is avidly sequestered by pre-existing metallothionein. The differences in the induction of metallothionein by these divalent cations can be explained by the differences in their binding affinities for thiol groups in intracellular metallothionein.