A wide range of metal ions of natural, therapeutic, diagnostic and toxic interest are transported by serum transferrin (80 kDa). It is therefore important to understand the factors that control the strength of metal binding. We show here that even though Sc3+ has only slightly larger ionic radius than Fe3+ (0.075 nm versus 0.065 nm), it binds to the C-lobe and N-lobe sites much more weakly: logK1* (bicarbonate-independent binding constant) 14.6 +/- 0.2, logK2* 13.3 +/- 0.3, respectively (10 mM Hepes, 5 mM bicarbonate, 310 K). Preferential binding to the C-lobe was established by 1H-NMR spectroscopy. We show that the strength of binding of divalent and trivalent metal ions to human serum transferrin correlates with metal ion acidity [and therefore with the strength of binding to hydroxide, K1(OH)]. The correlations are of predictive value for a range of other metal ions. The plot of logK1* (human serum transferrin) versus logK1(OH) has a negative intercept consistent with unfavorable entropy effects due to lobe closure of apotransferrin on binding of metal ions. This interpretation was tested by comparison with similar correlations of the strength of metal binding to the enzymes carbonic anhydrase and carboxypeptidase with that for the low-M(r) ligand imidazole. These plots have positive intercepts consistent with the preorganized (entatic) state of these metalloenzymes (favorable entropy effects on metal binding).