Plant chitinases belong to so-called pathogenesis related proteins and have mostly been detected in plants exposed to phytopathogenic viruses, bacteria or fungi. A few studies revealed that they might also be involved in plant defence against heavy metals. This work was undertaken to monitor the accumulation of chitinases in a set of heavy-metal stressed plants and bring evidence on their involvement during this kind of stress. Roots of different plant species including Vicia faba cvs. Aŝtar and Pieŝťanský, Pisum sativum, Hordeum vulgare, Zea mays and Glycine max were exposed to different concentrations of lead (300 and 500 mg l−1 Pb2+), cadmium (100 and 300 mg l−1 Cd2+) and arsenic (50 and 100 mg l−1 As3+). In each case, the toxicity effects were reflected in root growth retardation to 80–10% of control values. The most tolerant were beans, most sensitive was barley. Extracts from the most stressed roots were further assayed for chitinase activity upon separation on polyacrylamide gels. Our data showed that in each combination of genotype and metal ion there were 2–5 different chitinase isoforms significantly responsive to toxic environment when compared with water-treated controls. This confirms that chitinases are components of plant defence against higher concentrations of heavy metals. In addition, accumulation of some isoforms in response to one but not to other metal ions suggests that these enzymes might also be involved in a more (metal) specific mechanism in affected plants and their biological role is more complex than expected.