The algal plastidic cytochrome c (cyt c6) is a biochemical equivalent of the copper-containing protein plastocyanin in photosynthetic electron transfer. But generally, cyt c6 accumulates and functions only under conditions (e.g. Cu-deficiency) where holoplastocyanin cannot be synthesized. In studying the regulation of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii cyt c6 expression by Cu we have determined that repression of cyt c6 accumulation occurs at the transcriptional level, and specifically in response to Cu as the metal ion regulator. Complete and sustained repression of cyt c6 transcription requires approximately 9 x 10(6) Cu ions in the medium/cell. Based on the estimated plastocyanin content of algal cells (8 x 10(6) molecules/cell) and the observation that lower ratios of Cu per cell result in only transient repression of cyt c6 transcription, we propose that Cu-dependent transcriptional repression of the gene encoding cyt c6 requires a Cu-binding factor which is titrated by Cu only after the alternate electron transfer catalyst, plastocyanin, has accumulated to the stoichiometry required for photosynthesis. The precise and highly metal-specific, autoregulatory control of cyt c6 levels--directly by Cu, and indirectly by holoplastocyanin--is in keeping with the functional role of cyt c6 as an alternate, although perhaps less preferred, electron transfer catalyst.