Metallothionein has been assayed in a range of aquatic animal tissues as an indicator of metal exposure. We sequenced chub (Leuciscus cephalus) metallothionein cDNA which showed over 90% homology to common carp, goldfish and stone loach and 77% homology to rainbow trout sequences for metallothionein. We then used the extended primer method to develop an accurate quantitative competitive RT-PCR assay for metallothioncin mRNA. RT-PCR was used to measure metallothionein mRNA in feral chub from a range of field sites, with different levels of heavy metal pollution, in the West Midlands, UK. Measurements were complemented by analysis of liver and gill metallothionein protein by capillary electrophoresis. There was no significant difference in the metallothionein protein levels between fish of different rivers and there was no evidence of elevation of mRNA at the sites of highest metal exposure. The level of metal exposure (e.g. zinc, nickel and cadmium each ranging between 15 and 28 mug/l) at the pH (7.5-8.5) of these rivers appears insufficient to elevate hepatic or gill metallothionein in chub. A lack of elevation of hepatic metallothionein mRNA in chub exposed to zinc, copper and manganese for 24 h and 10 days in the laboratory also suggests a non-responsiveness of this species. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.