Acquisition of dietary copper: a role for anion transporters in intestinal apical copper uptake

Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2011 Mar;300(3):C588-99. doi: 10.1152/ajpcell.00054.2010. Epub 2010 Dec 29.


Copper is an essential micronutrient in humans and is required for a wide range of physiological processes, including neurotransmitter biosynthesis, oxidative metabolism, protection against reactive oxygen species, and angiogenesis. The first step in the acquisition of dietary copper is absorption from the intestinal lumen. The major human high-affinity copper uptake protein, human copper transporter hCTR1, was recently shown to be at the basolateral or blood side of both intestinal and renal epithelial cell lines and thus does not play a direct role in this initial step. We sought to functionally identify the major transport pathways available for the absorption of dietary copper across the apical intestinal membrane using Caco2 cells, a well-established model for human enterocytes. The initial rate of apical copper uptake into confluent monolayers of Caco2 cells is greatly elevated if amino acids and serum proteins are removed from the growth media. Uptake from buffered saline solutions at neutral pH (but not at lower pH) is inhibited by either d- or l-histidine, unaltered by the removal of sodium ions, and inhibited by ∼90% when chloride ions are replaced by gluconate or sulfate. Chloride-dependent copper uptake occurs with Cu(II) or Cu(I), although Cu(I) uptake is not inhibited by histidine, nor by silver ions. A well-characterized inhibitor of anion exchange systems, DIDS, inhibited apical copper uptake by 60-70%, while the addition of Mn(II) or Fe(II), competitive substrates for the divalent metal transporter DMT1, had no effect on copper uptake. We propose that anion exchangers play an unexpected role in copper absorption, utilizing copper-chloride complexes as pseudo-substrates. This pathway is also observed in mouse embryonic fibroblasts, human embryonic kidney cells, and Cos-7 cells. The special environment of low pH, low concentration of protein, and protonation of amino acids in the early intestinal lumen make this pathway especially important in dietary copper acquisition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anion Transport Proteins / metabolism*
  • COS Cells
  • Caco-2 Cells
  • Cell Polarity / physiology
  • Chlorocebus aethiops
  • Copper / metabolism*
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Epithelial Cells / ultrastructure
  • Fibroblasts
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Absorption / physiology*
  • Intestinal Mucosa / metabolism*
  • Intestinal Mucosa / ultrastructure
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Microvilli / metabolism


  • Anion Transport Proteins
  • Copper