Whether the decrease of zinc content in the femoral-metaphyseal tissues of rats with skeletal unloading is involved in the alteration of bone metabolism was investigated. Skeletal unloading was designed using the model of hindlimb suspension in rats. Animals were fed for 4 days with the unloading. The metaphyseal zinc content were significantly decreased by the unloading. Zinc accumulation in the metaphyseal tissues by a single oral administration of zinc sulfate (20 mg Zn/100 g body weight) was partially depressed by the unloading, although serum zinc concentration was higher than that in normal rats, suggesting an impaired movement of zinc from serum into bone tissues by the unloading. Skeletal unloading caused a significant decrease of alkaline phosphatase activity and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) content in the metaphyseal tissues. These decreases were completely restored by addition of zinc sulfate (10(-4) M) or beta-alanyl-L-histidinato zinc (AHZ; 10(-5) M) in a culture medium with the metaphyseal tissues in vitro. The effects of zinc compounds were abolished by the presence of cycloheximide (10(-8) M), suggesting that the zinc effect is based on a newly synthesized protein. Dipicolinate (10(-4) and 10(-5) M), a potent zinc-chelating agent, caused an appreciable decrease of zinc content and alkaline phosphatase activity in the metaphyseal tissues. This decrease was restored by zinc supplement. The present results suggest that the skeletal unloading-induced decrease of zinc content in the femoral-metaphyseal tissues plays a role in the deterioration of bone metabolism in the unloaded rats.