Background: The genetic and molecular mechanisms responsible for and associated with the development and progression of prostate malignancy are largely unidentified. The peripheral zone is the major region of the human prostate gland where malignancy develops. The normal peripheral zone glandular epithelium has the unique function of accumulating high levels of zinc. In contrast, the ability to accumulate zinc is lost in the malignant cells. The lost ability of the neoplastic epithelial cells to accumulate zinc is a consistent factor in their development of malignancy. Recent studies identified ZIP1 (SLC39A1) as an important zinc transporter involved in zinc accumulation in prostate cells. Therefore, we investigated the possibility that down-regulation of hZIP1 gene expression might be involved in the inability of malignant prostate cells to accumulate zinc. To address this issue, the expression of hZIP1 and the depletion of zinc in malignant versus non-malignant prostate glands of prostate cancer tissue sections were analyzed. hZIP1 expression was also determined in malignant prostate cell lines. Results: hZIP1 gene expression, ZIP1 transporter protein, and cellular zinc were prominent in normal peripheral zone glandular epithelium and in benign hyperplastic glands (also zinc accumulating glands). In contrast, hZIP1 gene expression and transporter protein were markedly down-regulated and zinc was depleted in adenocarcinomatous glands and in prostate intra-epithelial neoplastic foci (PIN). These changes occur early in malignancy and are sustained during its progression in the peripheral zone. hZIP1 is also expressed in the malignant cell lines LNCaP, PC-3, DU-145; and in the nonmalignant cell lines HPr-1 and BPH-1. Conclusions: The studies clearly establish that hZIP1 gene expression is down regulated and zinc is depleted in adenocarcinomatous glands. The fact that all the malignant cell lines express hZIP1 indicates that the down-regulation in adenocarcinomatous glands is likely due to in situ gene silencing. These observations, coupled with the numerous and consistent reports of loss of zinc accumulation in malignant cells in prostate cancer, lead to the plausible proposal that down regulation of hZIP1 is a critical early event in the development prostate cancer. © 2005 Franklin et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.