Open Access Research article

A functional screen for copper homeostasis genes identifies a pharmacologically tractable cellular system

Ulrich Schlecht, Sundari Suresh, Weihong Xu, Ana Maria Aparicio, Angela Chu, Michael J Proctor, Ronald W Davis, Curt Scharfe and Robert P St Onge*

Author Affiliations

Stanford Genome Technology Center, Department of Biochemistry, Stanford University, 855 S California Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94304, USA

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BMC Genomics 2014, 15:263  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-15-263

Published: 5 April 2014



Copper is essential for the survival of aerobic organisms. If copper is not properly regulated in the body however, it can be extremely cytotoxic and genetic mutations that compromise copper homeostasis result in severe clinical phenotypes. Understanding how cells maintain optimal copper levels is therefore highly relevant to human health.


We found that addition of copper (Cu) to culture medium leads to increased respiratory growth of yeast, a phenotype which we then systematically and quantitatively measured in 5050 homozygous diploid deletion strains. Cu’s positive effect on respiratory growth was quantitatively reduced in deletion strains representing 73 different genes, the function of which identify increased iron uptake as a cause of the increase in growth rate. Conversely, these effects were enhanced in strains representing 93 genes. Many of these strains exhibited respiratory defects that were specifically rescued by supplementing the growth medium with Cu. Among the genes identified are known and direct regulators of copper homeostasis, genes required to maintain low vacuolar pH, and genes where evidence supporting a functional link with Cu has been heretofore lacking. Roughly half of the genes are conserved in man, and several of these are associated with Mendelian disorders, including the Cu-imbalance syndromes Menkes and Wilson’s disease. We additionally demonstrate that pharmacological agents, including the approved drug disulfiram, can rescue Cu-deficiencies of both environmental and genetic origin.


A functional screen in yeast has expanded the list of genes required for Cu-dependent fitness, revealing a complex cellular system with implications for human health. Respiratory fitness defects arising from perturbations in this system can be corrected with pharmacological agents that increase intracellular copper concentrations.

Copper; Iron; Yeast; Functional Genomics; Disulfiram; Elesclomol; Menkes; Wilson’s; Vacuole