Expression of intracellular metallothionein (MT) has been linked to cis-diamminedichloroplatinum (cDDP) resistance in human germ cell tumor cell lines. To determine whether exposure to cDDP would select for cells with increased MT expression, the MT content of the human teratocarcinoma cell line T7800 was measured after development of resistance to cDDP by exposure to progressively higher drug concentrations (6.25-25 microM). cDDP-resistant cells (T7800R) had significantly higher MT mRNA and MT protein, increased resistance to killing by cDDP and altered in vitro growth kinetics compared to parental T7800 cells. cDDP resistance in a variety of other human tumor cell lines correlated with MT content, with no significant difference in glutathione level. These data indicate that selection in vitro for cDDP resistance in human germ cell tumors coselects for cells with enhanced MT content. However, selected cells differed in characteristics other than MT content. They had a slower growth rate and, although the rank order of MT level in T7800, T7800R and other human tumor cell lines correlated very well with cDDP resistance, differences in the level of MT expression did not correspond with differences in the absolute level of cDDP resistance. These results suggest that increased MT expression is concomitant with increased cDDP resistance in a variety of human tumor cell lines. However, measured differences in MT levels may not accurately reflect the degree of cDDP resistance differences among those cells.