Non-vertebrate chordates, specifically amphioxus, are considered of the utmost interest for gaining insight into the evolutionary trends, i.e. differentiation and specialization, of gene/protein systems. In this work, MTs (metallothioneins), the most important metal binding proteins, are characterized for the first time in the cephalochordate subphylum at both gene and protein level, together with the main features defining the amphioxus response to cadmium and copper overload. Two MT genes (BfMT1 and BfMT2) have been identified in a contiguous region of the genome, as well as several ARE (antioxidant response element) and MRE (metal response element) located upstream the transcribed region. Their corresponding cDNAs exhibit identical sequence in the two lancelet species (B. floridae and B. lanceolatum), BfMT2 cDNA resulting from an alternative splicing event. BfMT1 is a polyvalent metal binding peptide that coordinates any of the studied metal ions (Zn, Cd or Cu) rendering complexes stable enough to last in physiological environments, which is fully concordant with the constitutive expression of its gene, and therefore, with a metal homeostasis housekeeping role. On the contrary, BfMT2 exhibits a clear ability to coordinate Cd(II) ions, while it is absolutely unable to fold into stable Cu (I) complexes, even as mixed species. This identifies it as an essential detoxification agent, which is consequently only induced in emergency situations. The cephalochordate MTs are not directly related to vertebrate MTs, neither by gene structure, protein similarity nor metal-binding behavior of the encoded peptides. The closest relative is the echinoderm MT, which confirm proposed phylogenetic relationships between these two groups. The current findings support the existence in most organisms of two types of MTs as for their metal binding preferences, devoted to different biological functions: multivalent MTs for housekeeping roles, and specialized MTs that evolve either as Cd-thioneins or Cu-thioneins, according to the ecophysiological needs of each kind of organisms. © 2012 Guirola et al.