The mechanisms behind the antimicrobial properties of copper surfaces are related to the release of copper ions from metallic surfaces. They are only effective when there is direct contact between microbes and the copper surface and effectiveness varies amongst microbe species and on their state: free floating in liquid (planktonic), stuck on a surface, or within a multi-layered biofilm.
Several things happen to microbes when they are in contact with copper: cell wall damage; oxidative damage due to production of reactive oxygen species; enzyme inhibition; and degradation of their nucleic acids. However, this is affected by environmental conditions particularly the presence of water, temperature, pH, presence of other metals or ions, oxidation state, surface roughness and the species of microbes present.
The anti-fouling properties of copper are associated with the release of copper ions that cause cell damage by altering the microbe’s protein and enzyme structure and activity. The effect of copper on microbes in a biofilm is significantly different to the effects on individual microbes in liquid (plankton). In biofilms, microbes are protected by a sticky matrix that reduces the direct interaction with copper ions.
Further reading on copper
Inês B. Gomes, Manuel Simões and Lúcia C. Simões. Copper Surfaces in Biofilm Control. Nanomaterials 2020, 10, 2491. https://doi.org/10.3390/nano10122491.
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