Metallothioneins (MT) are low-molecular-weight, cysteine-rich, metal-binding proteins. MT genes are readily induced by various physiologic and toxicologic stimuli. Because the cysteines in MT are absolutely conserved across species, it was suspected that the cysteines are necessary for function and MT is essential for life. In attempts to determine the function(s) of MT, studies have been performed using four different experimental paradigms: (a) animals injected with chemicals known to induce MT; (b) cells adapted to survive and grow in high concentrations of MT-inducing toxicants; (c) cells transfected with the MT gene; and (d) MT-transgenic and MT-null mice. Most often, results from studies using the first three approaches have indicated multiple functions of MT in cell biology: MT (a) is a "storehouse" for zinc, (b) is a free-radical scavenger, and (c) protects against cadmium (Cd) toxicity. However, studies using MT-transgenic and null mice have not strongly supported the first two proposed functions but strongly support its function in protecting against Cd toxicity. Repeated administration of Cd to MT-null mice results in nephrotoxicity at one tenth the dose that produces nephrotoxicity in control mice. Human studies indicate that 7% of the general population have renal dysfunction from Cd exposure. Therefore, if humans did not have MT, "normal" Cd exposure would be nephrotoxic to humans. Thus, it appears that during evolution, the ability of MT to protect against Cd toxicity might have taken a more pivotal role in the maintenance of life processes, as compared with its other proposed functions (i.e. storehouse for zinc and free radical scavenger).