The zinc content in the pancreatic beta cell is among the highest of the body, but information about which proteins might handle zinc in the beta cell is unknown. In the present work RT-PCR was used to obtain clues about the developmental expression of genes encoding metal complexing proteins in the pancreatic islets of the normal Sprague-Dawley rat and the BB diabetes resistant (BBDR) rat. The BBDR rat possesses beta cells genetically identical to the BB diabetes prone (BBDP) rat which exhibits an autoimmune diabetes quite similar to type 1 diabetes in humans, but in contrast to the BBDP rat, the islets of the BBDR rat are amenable to study because they are not destroyed by immune attack. There was no difference in the expression of any of the genes studied between the two strains of rats. mRNAs encoding zinc transport proteins ZnT-1 and ZnT-4, as well as calreticulin, ferritin heavy and light chains, metallothionein 1, metallothionein 3, Nramp1, Nramp2, transferrin, and the transferrin receptor were readily detected in pancreatic islets of 10-day-old, 5-week-old, and adult (60 to 90-day-old) rats. In contrast to the islet, mRNAs encoding metallothionein 3, Nramp1, Nramp2, ZnT-2, ZnT-3, and ZnT-4 and transferrin were not detected in the whole pancreas of adult Sprague-Dawley rats. In the whole pancreas of 3-day-old rats, ZnT-1 was the only zinc transporter mRNA detected and its level was moderate. Moderate to high levels of mRNA encoding calreticulin and the light and heavy chains of ferritin, as well as transferrin and the transferrin receptor, were detected in whole pancreas at 3 days. ZnT-2 and ZnT-3 mRNAs were present in low to moderate levels in pancreatic islets of 10-day and 5-week-old rats, but were absent in 3-day-old pancreas and islets of adult animals. These results indicate that expression of these proteins is developmentally regulated in the islet. In both Sprague-Dawley and BB rats, high levels of mRNAs encoding known beta cell proteins as controls (cytochrome b558, quinone reductase, the tricarboxylic acid transport protein and the receptors for IGF-1 and IGF-2 and insulin) were present in islets from 10 days to adulthood. Levels of mRNAs encoding quinone reductase, the tricarboxylic acid transport protein cytochrome b558 and the receptors for IGF-2 and insulin, were low or absent in 3-day-old and adult pancreas. BB rats were studied in an attempt to discern a difference between normal rats and the BB strain of rats, because, perhaps, delayed expression of a beta cell protein results in failure of immune tolerance against the beta cell. According to this paradigm none of the proteins examined in the current study appear to be a candidate for initiating an immune response in the BB rat.