The antimicrobial applications of copper (Cu) are exploited in several industries, such as agriculture and healthcare settings. While Cu is capable of efficiently killing microorganisms, sub-lethal doses can induce a viable-but-non-culturable (VBNC) state in bacteria of many distinct clades. VBNC cells cannot be detected by standard culture-based detection methods, and can become a threat to plants and animals as they often retain virulent traits upon resuscitation. Here we discuss the putative mechanisms of the Cu-induced VBNC state. Common observations in Cu-induced VBNC cells include a cellular response to reactive oxygen species, the exhaustion of energy reserves, and a reconfiguration of the proteome. While showing partial overlap with other VBNC state-inducing stressors, these changes seem to be part of an adaptive response to Cu toxicity. Furthermore, we argue that Cu resistance mechanisms such as P-type ATPases and multicopper oxidases may ward off entry into the VBNC state to some extent. The spread of these mechanisms across multi-species populations could increase population-level resistance to Cu antimicrobials. As Cu resistance mechanisms are often co-selected with antibiotic resistance mechanisms, this threat is exacerbated.
- Oxidative stress