Metallothionein (MT) is a low-molecular-weight protein with a high cysteine content that has been proposed to play a role in protecting against oxidative stress. For example, MT has been shown to be a scavenger of hydroxyl radicals in vitro, and cells with high levels of MT are resistant to radiation. However, it is not known if compounds that cause oxidative stress affect MT levels. Therefore, mice were injected subcutaneously with 11 chemicals (t-butyl hydroperoxide, paraquat, diquat, menadione, metronidazole, adriamycin, 3-methylindole, cisplatin, diamide, diethyl maleate, and phorone) that produce oxidative stress by four main mechanisms. MT was quantitated in the cytosol of major organs (liver, pancreas, spleen, kidney, intestine, heart, and lung) by the Cd/hemoglobin radioassay 24 hr after administration of the chemicals. All agents significantly increased MT levels in at least one organ. Liver was the most responsive to these agents in that all 11 chemicals increased MT concentrations in liver, with diethyl maleate, paraquat, and diamide producing 20- to 30-fold increases. Pancreas and kidney were the next most responsive organs to these chemicals. The organ least responsive to these agents was the heart, as only 3 compounds caused significant increases in MT concentrations in heart. Diethyl maleate and diquat were the most general inducers of MT in that they increased MT in six of the seven organs examined. No treatment resulted in a significant decrease in MT concentration in any organ. In conclusion, chemicals that produce oxidative stress by one of four distinct mechanisms are very effective at increasing MT concentrations in a variety of organs. This suggests that MT might be involved in protecting against oxidative stress.