Expression of the serine acetyltransferase (SAT) gene family from Arabidopsis thaliana was investigated in response to treatment with the heavy metal cadmium (Cd). A fourth member of the SAT gene family, Sat-106, was also cloned and the complete SAT gene family from A. thaliana is discussed. Northern analysis of the gene family revealed tissue-specific expression patterns for each isogene. A. thaliana plants grown under 50 microM CdCl2 for a 24 h time course were also used for northern analysis. Expression of all SAT genes was increased to some extent by Cd treatment. Sat-5 expression showed particularly high levels of induction in the leaves of treated plants and was chosen for study by in situ hybridisation. Sat-5 expression was induced in the root and stem cortex and the leaf lamella and trichomes in response to heavy metal stress. SAT and its product O-acetylserine have previously been shown to be implicated in the control of sulphate reduction and cysteine biosynthesis in plants. These results suggest that specific SAT isoforms have a role in increasing cysteine production under conditions of heavy-metal stress when increased biosynthesis of glutathione and phytochelatins is required for detoxification purposes.