Both deficiency and excess of copper induce toxic effects on mammalian cell systems in vivo and in vitro. The effects can be related to the affinities of Cu(II) ions for specific cell components. The nucleus is a potential site for temporary Cu storage while primary targets for free Cu(II) ions are the thiol groups which reduce the ions to Cu(I). Cu(II) ions show a high affinity for nucleic acids, binding with DNA both at intrastrand and interstrand levels, possibly through intercalation between GC pairs. The ability to chelate Cu(II) ions is seen to be of the order: purine > purine ribonucleotides > purine ribonucleoside > pyrimidine ribonucleotides. Copper is an integral part of enzyme activation and enters into the molecular structure of several proteins, like ceruloplasmin. Cu(II) ion is a potential mutagenic agent as seen by its property of inducing infidelity in DNA synthesis in vitro. Teratogenic activities of copper have been reported but carcinogenicity is not yet confirmed. Copper is an essential component of chromatin and is known to accumulate preferentially in the heterochromatic regions. External application of higher doses, however, induces both clastogenic effects and spindle disturbances. In certain forms, inorganic copper enhances the clastogenic activity of other agents. The most widely studied human genetic maladies linked with copper metabolism are Menkes' and Wilson's diseases. Several mutations are known which influence Cu homeostasis in mammals. Such mutations in mice have been used extensively for biochemical studies. © 1989.