In this study we have compared different ligands containing three or more hetero-atoms (N, O and/or S) with respect to their ability to form tridentate complexes with a Tc-tricarbonyl moiety. Comparison of each ligand in a competition reaction with histidine first and then with each other compound allowed to rank the ligands according to their ability of complex formation with the [Tc-99m(CO)(3)](+) precursor from diethylenetriamine (most efficient of the studied ligands) to nitrilotriacetic acid (weakest complexing properties). The results provide insight in the structural requirements for the formation of stable Tc-tricarbonyl complexes and suggest preferred combinations and arrangements of the hetero-atoms involved in the complex formation. They also give a good indication which type of ligand is most appropriate to modify biomolecules for an efficient and stable labelling with a Tc-tricarbonyl moiety. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.