Late embryogenesis abundant (LEA) proteins accumulate to high levels during the late stage of seed maturation and in response to water deficit, and are involved in protecting higher plants from damage caused by environmental stresses, especially drought. In the present study, a novel maize (Zea mays L.) group 3 LEA gene, ZmLEA3, was identified and later characterized using transgenic tobacco plants to investigate its functions in abiotic and biotic stresses. Transcript accumulation demonstrated that ZmLEA3 was induced in leaves by high salinity, low temperature, osmotic and oxidative stress as well as by signaling molecules such as ABA, salicylic acid (SA) and methyl jasmonate (MeJA). The transcript of ZmLEA3 could also be induced by pathogens [Pseudomonas syringae pv. tomato DC3000 (pst dc3000)]. ZmLEA3 is located in the cytosol and the nucles. Further study indicated that the ZmLEA3 protein could bind Mn(2+), Fe(3+), Cu(2+) and Zn(2+). Overexpression of ZmLEA3 in transgenic tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) and yeast (GS115) conferred tolerance to osmotic and oxidative stresses. Interestingly, we also found that overexpression of ZmLEA3 in transgenic tobacco increased the hypersensitive cell death triggered by pst dc3000 and enhanced the expression of PR1a, PR2 and PR4 when compared with the wild type. Thus, we proposed that the ZmLEA3 protein plays a role in protecting plants from damage by protecting protein structure and binding metals under osmotic and oxidative stresses. In addition, ZmLEA3 may also enhance transgenic plant tolerance to biotic stress.