The Cd(2+)-inducible metallothionein (MTT1) gene was cloned from Tetrahymena thermophila. Northern blot analysis showed that MTT1 mRNA is not detectable in the absence of Cd(2+), is induced within 10 min of its addition, is expressed in proportion to its concentration, and rapidly disappears upon its withdrawal. Similarly, when the neo1 gene coding region flanked by the MTT1 gene noncoding sequences was used to disrupt the MTT1 locus, no transformants were observed in the absence of Cd(2+), and the number of transformants was proportional to increased Cd(2+) concentration. The neo3 cassette, in which the MTT1 promoter replaced the histone gene HHF1 promoter of the previously used neo2 cassette, transformed cells at much higher frequencies than neo2 and produced germ-line knockouts where neo2 had failed. Rescuing the progeny of a mating of gamma-tubulin gene, GTU1, knockout heterokaryons with a GTU1 gene inserted into the MTT1 locus yielded >75 times more transformants than rescuing with the wild-type GTU1 gene itself. When cells rescued with the MTT1-GTU1 chimeric gene were transferred to medium lacking Cd(2+), they stopped growing and had phenotypic changes indistinguishable from cells containing only disrupted GTU1 genes. Thus, it is now possible to create conditional lethal mutants and study the terminal phenotypes of null mutations for essential genes by replacing the endogenous gene with one under the control of the MTT1 promoter. The MTT1 promoter also resulted in approximately 30 times more overexpression of the IAG48[G1] surface antigen gene of the ciliate fish parasite Ichthyophthirius multifiliis than the highly expressed BTU1 promoter, accounting for approximately 1% of the total cell protein. Thus, the MTT1 promoter should enable routine over-expression of endogenous and foreign genes in Tetrahymena.