Phytochelatins (PCs) are glutathione-derived peptides with the general structure (gamma-Glu-Cys)nGly, where n varies from 2 to 11. A variety of metal ions such as Cu(II), Cd(II), Pb(II), Zn(II), and Ag(I) induce PC synthesis in plants and some yeasts. It has generally been assumed that the inducer metals also bind PCs. However, very little information is available on the binding of metals other than Cu(I) and Cd(II) to PCs. In this paper, we describe the Ag(I)-binding characteristics of PCs with the structure (gamma-Glu-Cys)2Gly, (gamma-Glu-Cys)3Gly, and (gamma-Glu-Cys)4Gly. The Ag(I)-binding stoichiometries of these three peptides were determined by (i) UV/VIS spectrophotometry, (ii) luminescence spectroscopy at 77 K, and (iii) reverse-phase HPLC. The three techniques yielded similar results. ApoPCs exhibit featureless absorption in the 220-340 nm range. The binding of Ag(I) to PCs induced the appearance of specific absorption shoulders. The titration end point was indicated by the flattening of the characteristic absorption shoulders. Similarly, luminescence at 77 K due to Ag(I)-thiolate clusters increased with the addition of graded Ag(I) equivalents. The luminescence declined when Ag(I) equivalents in excess of the saturating amounts were added to the peptides. At neutral pH, (gamma-Glu-Cys)2Gly, (gamma-Glu-Cys)3Gly, and (gamma-Glu-Cys)4Gly bind 1.0, 1.5, and 4.0 equivalents of Ag(I), respectively. The Ag(I)-binding capacity of (gamma-Glu-Cys)2Gly and (gamma-Glu-Cys)3Gly was increased at pH 5.0 and below so that Ag(I)/-SH ratio approached 1.0. A similar pH-dependent binding of Ag(I) to glutathione was also observed. The increased Ag(I)-binding to PCs at lower pH is of physiological significance as these peptides accumulate in acidic vacuoles. We also report lifetime data on Ag(I)-PCs. The relatively long decay-times (approximately 0.1-0.3 msec) accompanied with a large Stokes shift in the emission band are indicative of spin-forbidden phosphorescence.