Copper adsorption on the surface and intracellular uptake inside the cells of four representative taxons of soil and aquatic micro-organisms: aerobic rhizospheric heterotrophs (Pseudomonas aureofaciens), anoxygenic (Rhodovulum steppense) and oxygenic (cyanobacteria Gloeocapsa sp. and freshwater diatoms Navicula minima) phototrophs were studied in a wide range of pH, copper concentration, and time of exposure. Chemical status of adsorbed and assimilated Cu was investigated using in situ X-ray absorption spectroscopy. In case of adsorbed copper, XANES spectra demonstrated significant fractions of Cu(I) likely in the form of tri-coordinate complexes with O/N and/or S ligands. Upon short-term reversible adsorption at all four studied micro-organisms’ cell surface, Cu(II) is coordinated by 4.0 ± 0.5 planar oxygens at an average distance of 1.97 ± 0.02 Å, which is tentatively assigned to the carboxylate groups. The atomic environment of copper incorporated into diatoms and cyanobacteria during long-term growth is similar to that of the adsorbed metal with slightly shorter distances to the first O/N neighbor (1.95 Å). In contrast to the common view of Cu status in phototrophic micro-organisms, XAFS failed to detect sulfur in the nearest atomic environment of Cu assimilated by freshwater plankton (cyanobacteria) and periphyton (diatoms). The appearance of S in Cu 1st coordination shell at 2.27–2.32 Å was revealed only after long-term interaction of Cu with anoxygenic phototrophs (and Cu uptake by soil heterotrophs), suggesting Cu scavenging in the form of sulfhydryl, histidine/carboxyl or a mixture of carboxylate and sulfhydryl complexes. These new structural constraints suggest that adsorbed Cu(II) is partially reduced to Cu(I) already at the cell surface, where as intracellular Cu uptake and storage occur in the form of both Cu(I)-S linked proteins and Cu(II) carboxylates. Obtained results allow to better understand how, in the course of biological evolution, micro-organisms elaborated various mechanisms of Cu uptake and storage, from passive adsorption and uptake to active, protein-controlled surface reduction, and intracellular storage.