Addition of toxic heavy metal ions (Cd2+, Hg2+, and Pb2+) to hemin-supplemented rabbit reticulocyte lysate brings about the activation of the heme-regulated eukaryotic initiation factor 2 alpha kinase (HRI) and the inhibition of protein chain initiation. In this report we examined the effects of monothiol and dithiol compounds, metal ion-chelating agents, and metallothioneins (MT) on metal ion-induced inhibition of protein synthesis. The dithiol compounds dithiothreitol and 2,3-dimercaptopropane sulfonic acid prevented and relieved the inhibition of protein synthesis caused by Cd2+ and Hg2+ in hemin-supplemented lysates, but the monothiol compounds 2-mercaptoethanol, cysteamine, D-(-)penicillamine, and glutathione had no effect. The inhibition of protein synthesis caused by Cd2+ was reversed by the addition of excess EDTA but not by the addition of excess nitrilotriacetic acid. Toxic heavy metal ions inhibited the capacity of hemin-supplemented lysate to reduce disulfide bonds. Addition of excess EDTA to Cd(2+)-inhibited lysates restored the capacity of the lysate to reduce disulfide bonds and inhibited the phosphorylation of eukaryotic initiation factor eIF-2. MTs and their apoproteins (apoMTs) inhibited the activation of HRI and protected protein synthesis from inhibition by Cd2+, Hg2+, and Pb2+. Addition of apoMTs to heavy metal ion-inhibited lysates restored the capacity of lysates to reduce disulfide bonds. The restoration of the lysate's thioredoxin/thioredoxin reductase activity was accompanied by the inactivation of HRI and the resumption of protein synthesis, indicating that apoMTs can "detoxify" metal ions already bound to proteins. Several observations presented in this report suggest that the binding of metal ions to the alpha-domain of MT is responsible for the ability of MT to sequester bound metal in a non-toxic form. Addition of glucose 6-phosphate or NADPH had no effect on protein synthesis in metal ion-inhibited lysates, and NADPH concentrations in Cd(2+)-inhibited and hemin-supplemented control lysates were equivalent. The data suggest that the metal ions cause the inhibition of protein synthesis by binding to vicinal sulfhydryl groups present in some critical protein(s), possibly the dithiols present in the active site of thioredoxin and (or) thioredoxin reductase, which leads to the activation of HRI.