1. The effect of the divalent cation Zn2+ on inhibitory glycine receptor (GlyR) currents was investigated in rat embryonic spinal cord neurons and Xenopus oocytes expressing recombinant GlyRs. 2. In cultured spinal neurons, Zn2+ potentiated glycine-induced whole-cell currents about 3-fold when applied extracellularly at concentrations of 0.5-10 microM. In contrast, higher concentrations (> 100 microM) of Zn2+ decreased the glycine response. 3. A similar biphasic modulation of glycine-induced currents by Zn2+ was also found with recombinant homo- and hetero-oligomeric GlyRs generated in Xenopus oocytes. Dose-response analysis showed that both the potentiating and inhibitory effects of Zn2+ result from changes in apparent agonist affinity. 4. Analysis of chimeric constructs of the GlyR alpha 1- and beta-subunits revealed that the positive and negative modulatory effects of Zn2+ are mediated by different regions of the alpha 1-subunit. 5. Our data indicate the existence of distinct high- and low-affinity Zn2+ binding sites on the ligand-binding alpha-subunits of the GlyR. These sites may be implicated in the regulation of synaptic efficacy within glycinergic pathways.