Bacteria of silty estuarine sediments were spiked with copper to 200 mu g Cu g(-1) dry weight sediment in order to assess the impact of copper on bacterial degradation of organic matter and on bacterial biomass production. Bacterial density was determined by direct counting under epi-fluorescence microscopy and bacterial production by the incorporation of 3H-Leucine. Leucine turnover rate was evaluated by 14C_Ieucine incorporation and ectoenzymatic activities were estimated as the hydrolysis rate of model substrates for P-glucosidase and leucineaminopeptidase. The presence of added copper in the microcosms elicited, after 21 days of incubation, generalised anoxia and a decrease in organic matter content. The non-eroded surface of the copper-spiked sediment showed, when compared to the control, a decrease in bacterial abundance and significant lower levels of bacterial production and of leucine turnover rate. Bacterial production and leucine turnover rate decreased to 1.4% and 13% of the control values, respectively. Ectoenzymatic activities were also negatively affected but by smaller factors. After erosion by the water current in laboratory flume conditions, the eroded surface of the control sediment showed a generalised decline in all bacterial activities. The erosion of the copper-spiked sediment showed, however, two types of responses with respect to bacterial activities at the exposed surface: positive responses of bacterial production and leucine turnover rate contrasting with slight negative responses of ectoenzymatic activities. The effects of experimental erosion in the suspended cells were also different in the control and in the copper-spiked sediment. Bacterial cells in the control microcosm exhibited, when compared to the non-eroded sediment cells, decreases in all activities after the 6-h suspension. The response of the average suspended copper-spiked sediment cell differed from the control by a less sharp decrease in ectoenzymatic activities and, mainly, by the great intensification of bacterial biomass production and leucine turnover rate. We conclude that the bacterial community of silty estuarine sediments seems to withstand considerable concentrations of copper at the cost of reduced bacterial organic matter degradation and of the almost halting of bacterial production. The toxic effects elicited by copper on protein and carbohydrate degradation were not rapidly repaired by erosion and oxygenation of the sediment cells but, in contrast, bacterial biomass production and leucine turnover were rapidly and efficiently reactivated.