Metallothioneins (MTs) are small, cysteine-rich proteins that bind heavy metals which induce their synthesis. Tissue fractionation of embryos at pluteus stage previously demonstrated that in the absence of added zinc, basal expression of MT mRNA is confined to ectoderm, whereas induction by zinc results in increased expression in the endoderm + mesoderm tissue fraction. Using in situ hybridization we now show that expression in the pluteus larva is restricted almost exclusively to the single cell type comprising the aboral ectoderm. Induction by Zn results in a marked accumulation of MT mRNA in gut and oral ectoderm to levels at least as high as that in aboral ectoderm. MT mRNA is also expressed in presumptive aboral ectoderm at earlier stages of normal development. In addition it is transiently expressed at variable levels in oral ectoderm and, to a lesser extent, in presumptive gut.