Copper Keeps Us Going


Copper pipes, copper wires, copper…food? Copper is not only a useful metal for conducting electricity, but it’s also an essential element we need in our bodies for a variety of important activities—from metabolizing iron to pigmenting skin.

A graphic showing copper’s symbol Cu, atomic number 29, and atomic weight 63.546, all connected by lines to illustrations of the Statue of Liberty, a lightning bolt labeled “conductor,” and a crab labeled “blue blood.” New York’s Statue of Liberty is coated in 80 tons of copper, and oxidation causes its green color. Copper is an excellent conductor of electricity. It’s used in wiring, electronics, and lightning conductors. Crustaceans use copper complexes to transport oxygen in their blood, giving it a blue color. Across the bottom is the logo for the Royal Society of Chemistry celebrating IYPT 2019, the Compound Interest logo, and #IYPT2019. Copper is required to keep your body going. Enzymes that use copper are called cuproenzymes, and they catalyze a wide range of reactions, including making neurotransmitters and connective tissue. The element is found on the Statue of Liberty’s covering, in wiring and electronics, and in the blue blood of crustaceans. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.

Copper’s Calling Card

Copper serves as a cofactor for enzymes—called cuproenzymes—that perform a variety of important tasks throughout the body. Some of those roles include:

  • Catalyzing the conversion of oxygen into water to create an electrical gradient that mitochondria use to make ATP, the cell’s main source of energy
  • Chemically linking collagen and elastin to form connective tissue
  • Oxidizing iron to the form needed to make red blood cells
  • Performing important functions in the central nervous system like synthesizing phospholipids needed for myelin sheaths and creating neurotransmitters
  • Synthesizing melanin, the compound that gives skin, hair, and eyes their color
  • Serving as an antioxidant to protect cells from oxidative damage
Two units of orange and green ribbons and sheets with a gold sphere floating between the green sheets. A magnified view of the copper coordinating with the green sheets is shown in a separate box.
Structure of the human cuproenzyme Dopamine β-hydroxylase, which catalyzes the conversion of dopamine to norepinephrine. The copper ion (gold sphere) is shown in the yellow box. Credit: PDB 4ZEL.

The Color of Blood

Humans have a protein called hemoglobin that uses iron to bind oxygen and carry it through our bloodstream. The iron makes our blood red. But other organisms, like snails, spiders, octopuses, and squids, have a different oxygen-transporting protein called hemocyanin, which uses copper instead of iron. Their blood is blue because of copper!

Culinary Copper

An assortment of sunflower seeds, oats, pine nuts, chocolate, uncooked pasta, walnuts and macadamia nuts surrounding a small piece of paper with copper's symbol Cu written on it.
Sunflower seeds, chocolate, whole wheat pasta, and many other foods provide copper through our diets. Credit: iStock.

Almost all Americans get enough copper from their diets. It’s found in a variety of different foods, including beef liver, shellfish, chocolate, potatoes, and mushrooms. Our bodies absorb most copper through the small intestine, but only a small portion of what’s absorbed is needed. That copper is stored in bones and muscles, while the rest is excreted through bile.

NIGMS-Supported Copper Research

NIGMS supports many scientists conducting copper-related research. Some of them are:

  • Exploring how fungal pathogens capture and use copper in their antioxidant proteins
  • Activating yeast proteins with copper to help understand how DNA transcription levels affect replication
  • Using copper as a catalyst in chemical reactions to modify molecular structures in the search for new and better medicines
  • Identifying how high levels of copper or other metals in cells affects proteins and causes toxicity, in hopes to develop medicines for infections or diseases like cancer
  • Investigating how biological molecules affect copper metabolism and transport within the body

Check out our other posts on elements.

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