We explored the molecular genetics underlying the massive induction of isoMTs by Zn2+ or Cd2+ in metal tolerant rabbit kidney (RK-13) sub-line cells, using band shift assays and Southern blotting analysis. In sub-line cells accommodated to intermediate metal concentrations (100 microM Zn2+; 1-20 microM Cd2+) evidence suggested that the increase in the capacity for isoMT synthesis is brought about by an increased binding activity of the nuclear transcription factors MTF-1 and Sp1. Using quantitative band shift analysis with a mouse MRE-d oligonucleotide probe, the binding of both transcription factors was found to be enhanced two to three times over the binding activity measured in the unexposed parental RK-13 cells. Their increase in binding activity is probably the cause of the overexpression of MT genes and the development of metal tolerance in these cells. In cells tolerant to the highest concentrations of metal the analysis of Southern blot signals revealed MT gene amplification to be the most probable cause of the increased MT production. Thus, in cells of sub-lines growing in the presence of 350 microM Zn2+, two of the isoMT genes were coordinately triplicated and in cells tolerant to 150 microM Cd2+ one isoMT gene was amplified two-fold.