Parenteral administration of adrenal corticosteroids or particular transition metal salts are known to protect mice from the lethal effects of bacterial lipopolysaccharides (LPS). To determine if both groups of substances act through similar biologic mechanisms, their capacity to protect macrophages from the direct toxic effects of LPS was examined in vitro. When added simultaneously with LPS at culture initiation, 10 to 100 microM cortisone increased the viability of normal peritoneal macrophages as determined by trypan blue exclusion. Prednisolone and corticosterone protected LPS-treated macrophages at even lower concentrations (0.1 to 1 microM); estradiol and testosterone failed to alter cell viability at any concentration tested. Protection was dependent on de novo synthesis because inclusion of 20 nM actinomycin C1 or 1 microM cycloheximide with 10 microM corticosterone during a 4-hr pretreatment period blocked induction of the protective effect. Murine macrophages were also protected by micromolar concentrations of zinc, cadmium, mercury, and manganese, but not by calcium or lead. As was obtained with corticosteroids, heavy metal-induced protection depended on de novo RNA and protein synthesis. Because all substances that protected against LPS are known inducers of metallothionein in somatic cells, peritoneal macrophages were assayed for the presence of this unique, cytoplasmic protein. Within 2 to 8 hr, 10 microM cadmium caused three to fivefold increases in the incorporation of 35S-cysteine and in the binding of 203Hg into the TCA-soluble fraction of cell lysates that was excluded on centrifugally accelerated Sephadex G-10 columns. These results suggest macrophages may be protected from LPS-mediated cytotoxicity through synthesis of a sulfhydryl-rich, metal-binding protein. Although its mechanism of action remains unknown, it is proposed that metallothionein may function homeostatically by altering intracellular concentrations of zinc or may play a regulatory role by facilitating transfer of heavy metals among metal-requiring apoproteins.