The results of physicochemical studies of mammalian metallothioneins are summarized and used to propose a model of the protein. The primary structures of all mammalian metallothioneins are very homologous; there are 38 invariant residues and 20 of them are cysteines. The results of UV and CD optical studies indicated that all 20 cysteines are involved in the ligation of 7 mol of metal per mol of metallothionein and that the protein does not contain any alpha-helix structure. A theoretical analysis by the Chou-Fasman method has predicted 11 beta-bends, each one involving at least one cysteine residue. The most significant structural data, provided by 113Cd NMR, demonstrated that the 7 mol of bound Cd2+ are arranged in two separate metal clusters, one containing four metal ions and the other containing three, with all Cd2+ tetrahedrally coordinated to cysteine thiolate ligands. The 11 cysteine residues of the carboxyl-terminal portion of the metallothionein chain (residues 30-61) are ligated to the 4-metal cluster as shown by 113Cd NMR of this enzymatically cleaved fragment. The remaining cysteine residues from the amino-terminal polypeptide portion (residues 1-29) form the 3-metal cluster. Such a division of the chain is consistent with the presence of an intron in the mouse metallothionein-1 gene corresponding to residue 32 in the polypeptide chain. A two-domain molecular model has been constructed based on an analysis of all the available data and is described in detail. The accuracy of this model was tested by 1H NMR at 500 MHz and the data are in agreement with our proposed structure.