To understand the physiological and molecular mechanisms underlying seedling salt tolerance in rice (Oryza sativa L.), the phenotypic, metabolic, and transcriptome responses of two related rice genotypes, IR64 and PL177, with contrasting salt tolerance were characterized under salt stress and salt+abscisic acid (ABA) conditions. PL177 showed significantly less salt damage, lower Na(+)/K(+) ratios in shoots, and Na(+) translocation from roots to shoots, attributed largely to better salt exclusion from its roots and salt compartmentation of its shoots. Exogenous ABA was able to enhance the salt tolerance of IR64 by selectively decreasing accumulation of Na(+) in its roots and increasing K(+) in its shoots. Salt stress induced general and organ-specific increases of many primary metabolites in both rice genotypes, with strong accumulation of several sugars plus proline in shoots and allantoin in roots. This was due primarily to ABA-mediated repression of genes for degradation of these metabolites under salt. In PL177, salt specifically up-regulated genes involved in several pathways underlying salt tolerance, including ABA-mediated cellular lipid and fatty acid metabolic processes and cytoplasmic transport, sequestration by vacuoles, detoxification and cell-wall remodeling in shoots, and oxidation-reduction reactions in roots. Combined genetic and transcriptomic evidence shortlisted relatively few candidate genes for improved salt tolerance in PL177.