Metals can directly or indirectly cause an increase in reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulation in cells, and this may result in programmed cell death. A number of previous studies have shown that zinc (Zn) modulates mitogenic activity via several signalling pathways, such as AKT, mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), nuclear factor-kappa B (NF -κB), AP-1 and p53. The exact role that Zn plays in the regulation of apoptosis remains ambiguous. Intracellular free Zn modulates p53 activity and stability, and excess Zn alters the p53 protein structure and down-regulates p53's binding to DNA. Copper (Cu) accumulation causes apoptosis that seems to be mediated by DNA damage and subsequent p53 activation. Cu can also displace Zn from its normal binding site on p53, resulting in abnormal protein folding and disruption of p53 function. In spite of the induction of the tumour suppressor p53, hepatic Cu accumulation significantly increases the risk of cancerous neoplasm both in humans and rats, suggesting that p53 function may be impaired in these cells. It is generally understood that imbalances in Cu and Zn levels may lead to a higher prevalence of p53 mutations. An increased number of p53 mutations have been found in liver samples from Wilson's disease (WD) patients. High levels of the p53 mutation most probably contribute to the pathogenesis of cancer in individuals with WD, but the cause and effect are not clear. The protein p53 also plays a crucial role in the transcriptional regulation of metallothionein, which indicates a novel regulatory role for p53. This review discusses the central role of p53 and the redox-inert metal Zn in the cellular stress responses induced by the redox active biometal Cu. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.