The organization of the metallothionein (MT) gene family has been demonstrated to be much more complex in humans than in the mouse, and possibly rodents in general. For humans, the MTs are encoded by a family of genes located at 16q13 representing 10 functional and 7 non-functional MT isoforms. In the present study, the 5' and 3' untranslated region sequences of the highly conserved, functional MT genes were utilized to generate primer pairs for the analysis of isoform-specific MT mRNA using reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Human kidneys from 13 weeks gestation through adulthood were examined for the expression of MT protein and mRNA. Immunohistochemical analysis demonstrated MT immunoreactivity to be confined exclusively to the proximal tubules of the adult and developing kidney. For all MT-positive cells, MT was localized in the cytoplasm and nuclear localization was variable. There was no correlation between nuclear staining and stage of development. Of the 10 MT genes examined (MT-1A, MT-1B, MT-1E, MT-1F, MT-1G, MT-1H, MT-1X, MT-2A, MT-3, and MT-4), mRNAs representing the MT-1E, MT-1F, MT-1X, and MT-2A genes were consistently expressed in all samples regardless of gestational age. There was no indication of a 'fetal form' of MT analogous to that noted to occur in human liver. Messenger RNA for the MT-1A gene was detected in 2 of 6 renal samples without correlation to gestational age. In no instance was mRNA for the MT-1B, MT-1G, MT-1H, MT-3 or MT-4 genes detected. These studies detail the initial determination of MT gene expression in the human renal system and provide the PCR primers for testing and determination of MT gene expression in other organ systems.