In living organisms, copper (Cu) contributes to essential functions but at high concentrations it may elicit toxic effects. Cu-tolerant yeast strains are of relevance for both biotechnological applications and studying physiological and molecular mechanisms involved in stress resistance. One way to obtain tolerant strains is to exploit experimental methods that rely on the principles of natural evolution (evolutionary engineering) and allow for the development of complex phenotypic traits. However, in most cases, the molecular and physiological basis of the phenotypic changes produced have not yet been unravelled. We investigated the determinants of Cu resistance in a Saccharomyces cerevisiae strain that was evolved to tolerate up to 2.5 g CuSO(4) l(-1) in the culture medium. We found that the content of intracellular Cu and the expression levels of several genes encoding proteins involved in Cu metabolism and oxidative stress response were similar in the Cu-tolerant (evolved) and the Cu-sensitive (non-evolved) strain. The major difference detected in the two strains was the copy number of the gene CUP1, which encodes a metallothionein. In evolved cells, a sevenfold amplification of CUP1 was observed, accounting for its strongly and steadily increased expression. Our results implicate CUP1 in protection of the evolved S. cerevisiae cells against Cu toxicity. In these cells, robustness towards Cu is stably inheritable and can be reproducibly selected by controlling environmental conditions. This finding corroborates the effectiveness of laboratory evolution of whole cells as a tool to develop microbial strains for biotechnological applications.