The administration of inorganic Cd and Hg in vivo has been shown to result in markedly different metal concentrations in rat liver. Primary cultures of rat hepatocytes were utilized to gain insight into the dispositional differences between these chemically similar metals. Hepatocyte monolayer cultures were exposed to several concentrations of Cd or Hg (3, 10 and 30μm) in serum-containing medium for 30min. The cells were then washed and incubated in fresh medium for the remainder of the experiment. Hepatocytes exposed to Cd accumulated significantly more metal than hepatocytes exposed to equimolar concentrations of Hg. In cells exposed to 3μm-Cd there was an initial loss of Cd from the hepatocytes when placed in fresh medium, followed by a gradual re-uptake of metal, concomitant with increased binding to metallothionein. In hepatocytes exposed to 3 and 10μm-Cd, 87 and 77% of the intracellular Cd was bound to metallothionein within 24h. Loss of Hg from hepatocytes pulsed with 30μm-Hg was also observed upon the addition of fresh medium and continued for the duration of the experiment. No time-dependent increase in Hg binding to metallothionein was observed. A maximum of about 10% of the intracellular Hg was found associated with metallothionein in hepatocytes exposed to 30μm-Hg. Studies utilizing [35S]cysteine incorporation indicated significant increases in the amount of metallothionein synthesized in hepatocytes exposed to 3 and 10μm-Cd (300% of control value) and 30μm-Hg (150% of control value) 24h after metal pulsing. Time-course studies revealed a 6–12h lag in metallothionein synthesis, followed by a significant elevation in [35S]cysteine incorporation into metallothionein between 12 and 24h. These studies suggest that (a) isolated hepatocytes differentiate between Cd and Hg and preferentially accumulate the former, and (b) Cd strongly stimulates the induction of, and preferentially binds to, metallothionein, whereas Hg induces weakly, and does not preferentially bind to, metallothionein.

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