Changes in photosynthetic and antioxidant activities in maize (Zea mays L.) leaves of cultivars 3223 and 31G98 exposed to excess copper (Cu) were investigated. Cu treatment reduced the shoot and root length of both cultivars. No significant difference of Cu accumulation in the roots of both cultivars was observed while the cultivar 3223 accumulated significantly higher Cu in leaves than 31G98. The observed decreases in effective quantum efficiency of PSII ETR and qp indicate an over excitation of photochemical system in 3223 compared to 31G98. The leaf chlorophyll and carotenoid contents of both cultivars decreased with increasing Cu concentration. A far higher production of anthocyanins in 31G98 has been observed than that of 3223. At 1.5 mM Cu concentration, all antioxidant enzyme activities increased in leaves of the cultivar 3 1 G98 while there were no significant changes in SOD and GR activities in 3223 compared to the control except increased APX and POD activities. The lower Cu accumulation in leaves and higher antioxidant enzyme activities in 31G98 suggested an enhanced tolerance capacity of this cultivar to protect the plant from oxidative damage. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.