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© 2017 American Society for Microbiology. While copper is an essential trace element in biology, pollution of groundwater from copper has become a threat to all living organisms. Cellular mechanisms underlying copper toxicity, however, are still not fully understood. Previous studies have shown that iron-sulfur proteins are among the primary targets of copper toxicity in Escherichia coli under aerobic conditions. Here, we report that, under anaerobic conditions, iron-sulfur proteins in E. coli cells are even more susceptible to copper in medium. Whereas addition of 0.2 mM copper(II) chloride to LB (Luria-Bertani) medium has very little or no effect on iron-sulfur proteins in wild-type E. coli cells under aerobic conditions, the same copper treatment largely inactivates iron-sulfur proteins by blocking iron-sulfur cluster biogenesis in the cells under anaerobic conditions. Importantly, proteins that do not have iron-sulfur clusters (e.g., fumarase C and cysteine desulfurase) in E. coli cells are not significantly affected by copper treatment under aerobic or anaerobic conditions, indicating that copper may specifically target iron-sulfur proteins in cells. Additional studies revealed that E. coli cells accumulate more intracellular copper under anaerobic conditions than under aerobic conditions and that the elevated copper content binds to the iron-sulfur cluster assembly proteins IscU and IscA, which effectively inhibits iron-sulfur cluster biogenesis. The results suggest that the copper-mediated inhibition of iron-sulfur proteins does not require oxygen and that iron-sulfur cluster biogenesis is the primary target of anaerobic copper toxicity in cells.

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Applied and Environmental Microbiology