We have reported previously that copper I and II ionic species, and superoxide but not Fenton reaction generated hydroxyl radicals, are important in the killing mechanism of pathogenic enterococci on copper surfaces. In this new work we determined if the mechanism was the same in non-pathogenic ancestral (K12) and laboratory (DH5α) strains, and a pathogenic strain (O157), of Escherichia coli. The pathogenic strain exhibited prolonged survival on stainless steel surfaces compared with the other E. coli strains but all died within 10 min on copper surfaces using a 'dry' inoculum protocol (with approximately 10(7) cfu cm(-2) ) to mimic dry touch contamination. We observed immediate cytoplasmic membrane depolarization, not seen with enterococci or methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and loss of outer membrane integrity, inhibition of respiration and in situ generation of reactive oxygen species on copper and copper alloy surfaces that did not occur on stainless steel. Chelation of copper (I) and (II) ionic species still had the most significant impact on bacterial survival but protection by d-mannitol suggests hydroxyl radicals are involved in the killing mechanism. We also observed a much slower rate of DNA destruction on copper surfaces compared with previous results for enterococci. This may be due to protection of the nucleic acid by the periplasm and the extensive cell aggregation that we observed on copper surfaces. Similar results were obtained for Salmonella species but partial quenching by d-mannitol suggests radicals other than hydroxyl may be involved. The results indicate that copper biocidal surfaces are effective for Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria but bacterial morphology affects the mechanism of toxicity. These surfaces could not only help to prevent infection spread but also prevent horizontal gene transmission which is responsible for the evolution of virulent toxin producing and antibiotic resistant bacteria.