The dose response as well as kinetics of uptake and retention of copper and cadmium of normal and Menkes kinky hair disease (MKHD) cultured fibroblasts are described. In basal culture medium, intracellular copper concentration in MKHD fibroblasts was approximately 3 times that of control cultures. The intracellular copper concentration of MKHD cells was significantly higher than that of normal fibroblasts at medium copper concentrations below 20 microgram/ml. Death of MKHD cells occurred at medium copper concentrations between 15 and 20 microgram/ml with an intracellular copper level 3 times that at basal medium. Normal cells died at medium copper concentration above 30 microgram/ml with an intracellular copper concentration 19 times that at basal medium. These observations suggested the existence of a regulatory mechanism for maintenance and control of intracellular copper in normal fibroblasts which is effective at medium copper concentrations below 30 microgram/ml. This system is defective in MKHD fibroblasts. In basal medium MKHD and normal fibroblasts had similar intracellular cadmium concentrations; however, at higher medium cadmium concentrations MKHD cells had increased intracellular cadmium levels. The uptake of both 64Cu and 109Cd was significantly higher in MKHD cells than in normal cells, indicating that the uptake of 64Cu and 109Cd is not impaired in MKHD cells. A higher retention of 64Cu was observed in MKHD cells at both 37 degrees C and 4 degrees C. No obvious trend, however, was observed in the difference of retention of 109Cd between MKHD and normal cells. An impairment of egress of copper in MKHD cells is implicated by these results.