Rabbit liver metallothionein-1 (Mr 6500), which contains zinc and/or cadmium ions, appears to scavenge free hydroxyl (.OH) and superoxide (O-.2) radicals produced by the xanthine/xanthine oxidase reaction much more effectively than bovine serum albumin (Mr 65 000) which was used as a control. Kinetic competition studies between metallothionein and either a spin trap for .OH or ferricytochrome c for O-.2 radicals, gave bimolecular rate constants of the order of kOH/MT approximately equal to 10(12) M-1 X s-1 and kO-2/MT approximately equal to 5 X 10(5) M-1 X s-1, respectively. The former value suggests that all 20 cysteine sulfur atoms are involved in this quenching process and that they all act in the diffusion control limit. The aerobic radiolysis of an aqueous solution of metallothionein, generating O-.2 and .OH radicals, induced metal ion loss and thiolate oxidation. These effects could be reversed by incubation of the irradiated protein with reduced glutathione and the appropriate bivalent metal ion. Metallothionein appears to be an extraordinarily efficient .OH radical scavenger even when compared to proteins 10-50-times its molecular weight. Moreover, hydroxyl radical damage to metallothionein appears to occur at the metal-thiolate clusters, which may be repaired in the cell by reduced glutathione. Metallothionein has the characteristics of a sacrificial but renewable cellular target for .OH-mediated cellular damage.