The copper chaperone for the superoxide dismutase (CCS) gene is necessary for expression of an active, copper-bound form of superoxide dismutase (SOD1) in vivo in spite of the high affinity of SOD1 for copper (dissociation constant = 6 fM) and the high intracellular concentrations of both SOD1 (10 [micro sign]M in yeast) and copper (70 [micro sign]M in yeast). In vitro studies demonstrated that purified Cu(I)-yCCS protein is sufficient for direct copper activation of apo-ySOD1 but is necessary only when the concentration of free copper ions ([Cu]free) is strictly limited. Moreover, the physiological requirement for yCCS in vivo was readily bypassed by elevated copper concentrations and abrogation of intracellular copper-scavenging systems such as the metallothioneins. This metallochaperone protein activates the target enzyme through direct insertion of the copper cofactor and apparently functions to protect the metal ion from binding to intracellular copper scavengers. These results indicate that intracellular [Cu]free is limited to less than one free copper ion per cell and suggest that a pool of free copper ions is not used in physiological activation of metalloenzymes.