Using two barley (Hordeum vulgare) cultivars (cvs. Tokak and Hamidiye) nutrient solution experiments were conducted in order to study the genotypic variation in tolerance to Cd toxicity based on (i) development of leaf symptoms, (ii) decreases in dry matter production, (iii) Cd concentration and (iv) changes in antioxidative defense system in leaves (i.e., superoxide dismutase, ascorbate peroxidase, glutathione reductase, catalase, ascorbic acid and non-protein SH-groups). Plants were grown in nutrient solution under controlled environmental conditions, and subjected to increasing concentrations of Cd (0, 15, 30, 60 and 120 mu mol/L Cd) for different time periods. Of the barley cultivars Hamidiye was particularly sensitive to Cd as judged by the severity and earlier development of Cd toxicity symptoms on leaves. Within 48 h of Cd application Hamidiye rapidly developed severe leaf Cd toxicity symptoms whereas in Tokak the leaf symptoms appeared only slightly. Hamidiye also tended to show more decrease in growth caused by Cd supply when compared to Tokak. The differences in sensitivity to Cd between Tokak and Hamidiye were not related to Cd concentrations in roots and shoots or Cd accumulation per plant. With the exception of catalase, activities of the enzymes involved in detoxification of reactive oxygen species (ROS) were markedly enhanced in Hamidiye by increasing Cd supply. By contrast, in Tokak there was either only a slight increase or no change in the activities of the antioxidative enzymes. Similarly, levels of ascorbic acid and especially non-protein SH-groups were increased in Hamidiye by Cd supply, but not affected in Tokak. The results indicate the existence of a large genotypic variation between barley cultivars for Cd tolerance. The differential Cd tolerance found in the barley cultivars was not related to uptake or accumulation of Cd in plants, indicating importance of internal mechanisms in expression of differential Cd tolerance in barley. As a response to increasing Cd supply particular increases in antioxidative mechanisms in the Cd-sensitive barley cultivar Hamidiye suggest that the high Cd sensitivity of Hamidiye is related to enhanced production and oxidative damage of ROS. (c) 2006 Elsevier GmbH. All rights reserved.