Metals are commonly found as natural constituents of proteins. Since many such metals can interact specifically with their corresponding unfolded proteins in vitro, cofactor-binding prior to polypeptide folding may be a biological path to active metalloproteins. By interacting with the unfolded polypeptide, the metal may create local structure that initiates and directs the polypeptide-folding process. Here, we review recent literature that addresses the involvement of metals in protein-folding reactions in vitro. To date, the best characterized systems are simple one such as blue-copper proteins, heme-binding proteins, iron-sulfur-cluster proteins and synthetic metallopeptides. Taken together, the available data demonstrates that metals can play diverse roles: it is clear that many cofactors bind before polypeptide folding and influence the reaction; yet, some do not bind until a well-structured active site is formed. The significance of characterizing the effects of metals on protein conformational changes is underscored by the many human diseases that are directly linked to anomalous protein–metal interactions.