Copper (Cu) is a redox-active metal ion essential for most aerobic organisms. Cu serves as a catalytic and structural cofactor for enzymes that function in energy generation, iron acquisition, oxygen transport, cellular metabolism, peptide hormone maturation, blood clotting, signal transduction and a host of other processes. The inability to control Cu balance is associated with genetic diseases of overload and deficiency and has recently been tied to neurodegenerative disorders and fungal virulence. The essential nature of Cu, the existence of human genetic disorders of Cu metabolism and the potential impact of Cu deposition in the environment have been driving forces for detailed investigations in microbial and eukaryotic model systems. Here we review recent advances in the identification and function of cellular and systemic molecules that drive Cu accumulation, distribution and sensing.