Human activities have been increasing the cadmium levels in soils and waters, disturbing many organisms in the primary trophic levels such as microalgae. Toxic metal pollution is a focus point of serious concern and the examination and monitoring water quality are becoming essential procedures. Diatoms are important bioindicators to monitor the metal concentrations in diverse habitats. The present study was planned to determine the biochemical mechanisms used by freshwater diatoms to cope with cadmium stress and to identify biomarkers of metal stress. For this, Nitzschia palea (Kützing) W. Smith was grown under different concentrations of Cd (0.01-0.1 mg l(-1)) and the IC(50) determined. Three concentrations (0.1, 0.2 and 0.3 mg Cd l(-1)) and a control (no cadmium) were used to undergo the experimental assays which allowed the determination of cadmium accumulation and several biochemical markers currently used to assess metal stress. N. palea was sensitive to cadmium, as the IC(50) calculated was 0.0276 mg Cd l(-1). Cadmium accumulation increased sharply and was mainly associated to the frustule. Total protein content increased with cadmium exposure, inducing increases and decreases in polypeptide expression, indicating an attempt of N. palea cells to adjust to the new prevailing conditions induced by metal stress. In order to cope with cadmium stress, cells induced the synthesis of chelating molecules such as phytochelatins (PCs). The enzymatic (SOD and CAT) and non-enzymatic (glutathione and proline) ROS scavenging mechanisms were also induced. Our results indicate the existence of diverse metal stress-mediated mechanisms in order to lessen metal damages to the cell. PCs showed to be a suitable biomarker of metal stress; besides being metal specific and concentration respondent it also allows to infer about the level of stress imposed to cells, constituting a useful tool to complement the evaluation of diatom communities when accessing aquatic metal toxicity.