The effect of heavy metal ions (in particular Cd2+, Hg2+, and Pb2+) on protein synthesis in hemin-supplemented reticulocyte lysates was investigated. Heavy metal ions were found to inhibit protein synthesis in hemin-supplemented lysates with biphasic kinetics. The shut off of protein synthesis occurred in conjunction with the phosphorylation of the alpha-subunit of the eukaryotic initiation factor (eIF) 2, the loss of reversing factor (RF) activity, and the disaggregation of polyribosomes. Addition of eIF-2 or RF to heavy metal ion-inhibited lysates restored protein synthesis to levels observed in hemin-supplemented controls. The stimulation of protein synthesis observed upon the addition of cAMP to heavy metal ion-inhibited lysates correlated with the inhibition of eIF-2 alpha phosphorylation and the restoration of RF activity. The partial restoration of protein synthesis observed upon the addition of MgGTP to heavy metal ion-inhibited lysates correlated with a partial inhibition of eIF-2 alpha phosphorylation. Addition of glucose 6-phosphate was found to have no effect on protein synthesis of eIF-2 alpha phosphorylation under these conditions. Antiserum raised to the reticulocyte heme-regulated eIF-2 alpha kinase inhibited the phosphorylation of eIF-2 alpha catalyzed by Hg2+-inhibited lysate. The inhibition of protein synthesis observed in the presence of heavy metal ions correlated with the relative biological toxicity of the ions. Highly toxic ions (AsO-2, Cd2+, Hg2+, Pb2+) inhibited protein synthesis by 50% at concentrations of 2.5-10 microM. Cu2+, Fe3+, and Zn2+, which are moderately to slightly toxic ions, inhibited protein synthesis by 50% at concentrations of 40, 250, and 300 microM, respectively. The data presented here indicate that heavy metal ions inhibit protein chain initiation in hemin-supplemented lysates by stimulating the phosphorylation of eIF-2 alpha apparently through the activation of the heme-regulated eIF-2 alpha kinase rather than through inhibition of the rate of eIF-2 alpha dephosphorylation.