The role of inorganic metals and metalloporphyrins in the induction of mRNAs for haem oxygenase and heat-shock protein 70 (hsp70), the two heat-shock proteins, was examined in human HepG2 and Hep3B hepatoma cells. SnCl2, but not Sn-protoporphyrin, was found to be a potent inducer of both haem oxygenase and hsp70 mRNAs. In contrast, CoCl2, ZnCl2 and FeCl2 caused little induction of haem oxygenase and hsp70 mRNAs, whereas the porphyrin complexes of these metals strongly induced haem oxygenase mRNA, without influencing the level of hsp70 mRNA. The induction process was largely transcriptional, as judged by the inhibition of induction by actinomycin D, but not by cycloheximide, and by increased transcription demonstrated by nuclear run-off analysis. Since CoCl2 is a potent inducer of haem oxygenase in vivo in animals, the possibility of the biosynthesis of Co-protoporphyrin was examined in human hepatoma cells by incubating them with CoCl2 and protoporphyrin, or delta-aminolaevulinate (ALA), the precursor of protoporphyrin. Both types of treatment led to a potent induction of haem oxygenase mRNA. Co-protoporphyrin formation was also spectrally demonstrated in cells incubated with the metal and ALA. The results of this study indicate that certain metals, e.g. SnCl2, may directly induce haem oxygenase mRNA, whereas with other elements, incorporation of the metal into the porphyrin macrocycle is necessary for induction. Therefore CoCl2, like haemin, may activate the haem oxygenase gene via a haem-responsive transcription factor, whereas SnCl2 may exert its effect via a metal-responsive transcription factor.

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