Four metallothionein genes are present in the Drosophila melanogaster genome, designated MtnA, MtnB, MtnC, MtnD, all of which are transcriptionally induced by heavy metals through the same metal-responsive transcription factor, MTF-1. Here we show, by targeted mutagenesis, that the four metallothionein genes exhibit distinct, yet overlapping, roles in heavy metal homeostasis and toxicity prevention. Among the individual metallothionein mutants, the most prominent distinction between them was that MtnA-defective flies were the most sensitive to copper load, while MtnB-defective flies were the most sensitive to cadmium. Using various reporter gene constructs and mRNA quantification, we show that the MtnA promoter is preferentially induced by copper, while the MtnB promoter is preferentially induced by cadmium. Such a metal preference is also observed at the protein level as the stoichiometric, spectrometric and spectroscopic features of the copper and cadmium complexes with MtnA and MtnB correlate well with a greater stability of copper-MtnA and cadmium-MtnB. Finally, MtnC and MtnD, both of which are very similar to MtnB, display lower copper and cadmium binding capabilities compared to either MtnA or MtnB. In accordance with these binding studies, Drosophila mutants of MtnC or MtnD have a near wild type level of resistance against copper or cadmium load. Furthermore, eye-specific over-expression of MtnA and MtnB, but not of MtnC or MtnD, can rescue a "rough eye" phenotype caused by copper load in the eye. Taken together, while the exact roles of MtnC and MtnD remain to be determined, the preferential protection against copper and cadmium toxicity by MtnA and MtnB, respectively, are the result of a combination of promoter preference and metal binding. © 2006 The Authors Journal compilation © 2006 by the Molecular Biology Society of Japan/Blackwell Publishing Ltd.