The purpose of this study was to determine whether metallothionein-I (MT-I) transgenic female mice (MT-TG) are resistant to cadmium (Cd) hepatotoxicity. Female MT-TG mice have 10- to 20-fold higher MT concentrations in liver than control mice and are more resistant to Cd-induced lethality than control mice. CdCl2 (3.7 mg Cd/kg, iv) was lethal to 73% of control mice, but only to 13% of MT-TG mice. Cd administration (3.1 mg/kg, iv) to control mice produced extensive liver injury as evidenced by 20- and 70-fold increases in serum enzyme activities of sorbitol dehydrogenase and alanine aminotransferase, respectively. MT-TG mice are considerably more resistant to Cd-induced hepatotoxicity than control mice, as evidenced by only about one-tenth the elevation in serum enzymes observed in control mice and a lower incidence of hepatocyte necrosis in MT-TG mice. To ascertain the mechanism of this protection, the distribution of Cd to various organs and the subcellular distribution of Cd in liver were determined 2 hr after Cd injection (109CdCl2, 3.5 mg Cd/kg, iv). The hepatic subcellular distribution of Cd was altered markedly in MT-TG mice, with much less Cd distributing to nuclei, mitochondria, and microsomes (25, 42, and 24% of controls, respectively), and more Cd to the cytosol (240% of controls). The increased cytosolic Cd was bound primarily to MT, as determined by G-75 gel chromatography. In addition, primary hepatocyte cultures from MT-TG mice maintained higher levels of MT than hepatocytes from control mice and were more resistant to Cd cytotoxicity than control hepatocytes. In conclusion, studies using MT-I transgenic mice demonstrate that MT protects against Cd lethality and hepatotoxicity, and this hepatoprotective effect of MT is also observed in hepatocyte cultures from MT-TG mice.