Synthetic biology approaches to copper remediation: bioleaching, accumulation and recycling

FEMS Microbiol Ecol. 2021 Jan 26;97(2):fiaa249. doi: 10.1093/femsec/fiaa249.


One of the current aims of synthetic biology is the development of novel microorganisms that can mine economically important elements from the environment or remediate toxic waste compounds. Copper, in particular, is a high-priority target for bioremediation owing to its extensive use in the food, metal and electronic industries and its resulting common presence as an environmental pollutant. Even though microbe-aided copper biomining is a mature technology, its application to waste treatment and remediation of contaminated sites still requires further research and development. Crucially, any engineered copper-remediating chassis must survive in copper-rich environments and adapt to copper toxicity; they also require bespoke adaptations to specifically extract copper and safely accumulate it as a human-recoverable deposit to enable biorecycling. Here, we review current strategies in copper bioremediation, biomining and biorecycling, as well as strategies that extant bacteria use to enhance copper tolerance, accumulation and mineralization in the native environment. By describing the existing toolbox of copper homeostasis proteins from naturally occurring bacteria, we show how these modular systems can be exploited through synthetic biology to enhance the properties of engineered microbes for biotechnological copper recovery applications.

Keywords: bacteria; bioremediation; copper; copper homeostasis; synthetic biology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biodegradation, Environmental
  • Copper*
  • Humans
  • Metals
  • Recycling
  • Synthetic Biology*


  • Metals
  • Copper