Several metals are excreted in bile as glutathione complexes, and their biliary excretion is facilitated by increased hepatobiliary transport of glutathione. The present study analyzed the effect of lipoic acid (LA; thioctic acid; 37.5-300 mumol/kg, iv), an endogenous disulfide which can be reduced in vivo to a dithiol, on the hepatobiliary disposition of glutathione-related thiols and the biliary excretion of metals (10 mumol/kg, iv) in rats. Administration of LA enhanced the biliary excretion of reduced glutathione in a dose-dependent fashion. Despite increasing glutathione output, LA (150 mumol/kg, iv) did not increase, but rather decreased, the biliary excretion of methylmercury, cadmium, zinc, and copper, which are transported into bile in a glutathione-dependent manner, as indicated by a marked reduction in their biliary excretion after diethyl maleate-induced glutathione depletion. In contrast, biliary excretion of inorganic mercury, which is minimally affected by glutathione depletion, was dramatically enhanced (12- to 37-fold) by LA administration. Following injection of LA, the concentrations of endogenous disulfides in arterial blood plasma (e.g., cystine, glutathione disulfide, cysteine-glutathione, protein-cysteine, and protein-glutathione mixed disulfides) were considerably diminished, while the levels of endogenous thiols (e.g., glutathione and cysteine) were increased. This finding indicates that LA, probably after enzymatic conversion to dihydrolipoic acid, can reduce endogenous disulfides to thiols. It appears that LA induces the transport of glutathione into bile by the temporary formation of dihydrolipoic acid-glutathione mixed disulfide, which after being translocated into bile is cleaved to LA and reduced glutathione. Because the glutathione molecule thus transported into bile cannot complex metals at the thiol group, this might be the mechanism for the observed failure of the LA-induced increase in biliary excretion of glutathione to enhance the hepatobiliary transport of metals that are transported into bile as glutathione complexes (i.e., methylmercury, cadmium, zinc, and copper). The observations also raise the possibility that endogenous dihydrolipoic acid, by forming a stable complex with mercuric ion, may play the role of a carrier molecule in the hepatobiliary transport of inorganic mercury.