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Metallothioneins (MTs) are metal-inducible proteins that can be used as biomarkers of metal exposure. In mussels two families of MT isoforms (MT10 and MT20) have been characterized. In this study, mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis) were exposed to 200 ppb Cd and 40 ppb Cu for 2 and 9 days to characterize the tissue and isoform specificity of metal-induced MT expression. Non-radioactive in situ hybridization demonstrated that both MT isoforms were mainly transcribed in digestive tubule epithelial cells, especially in basophilic cells. Weaker MT expression was detected in non-ciliated duct cells, stomach and gill epithelial cells, haemocytes, adipogranular cells, spermatic follicles and oocytes. RT–PCR resulted in cloning of a novel M. galloprovincialis isoform homologous to recently cloned Mytilus edulis intron-less MT10B isoform. In gills, Cd only affected MT10 gene expression after 2 days of exposure while increases in MT protein levels occurred at day 9. In the digestive gland, a marked increase of both isoforms, but especially of MT20, was accompanied by increased levels of MT proteins and basophilic cell volume density (VvBAS) after 2 and 9 days and of intralysosomal metal accumulation in digestive cells after 9 days. Conversely, although metal was accumulated in digestive cells lysosomes and the VvBAS increased in Cu-exposed mussels, Cu exposure did not produce an increase of MT gene expression or MT protein levels. These data suggest that MTs are expressed in a tissue-, cell- and isoform-specific way in response to different metals.