A method for the determination of Cu, Zn, Fe, Ni and Cd by flame atomic absorption spectrophotometry (FAAS) after preconcentrating on a column containing Escherichia coli immobilized on sepiolite has been developed. Optimum pH values, amount of adsorbent, elution solution and flow rate have been obtained for the elements studied. The effect of interfering ions on the recovery of the analytes has also been investigated. Recoveries of Cu, Zn, Fe, Ni and Cd by E. coli immobilized on sepiolite were 99.1 +/- 0.6, 98.2 +/- 0.6, 98.1 +/- 0.5, 97.2 +/- 0.8 and 98.2 +/- 0.4% at 95% confidence level, respectively. The adsorption capacity of E. coli immobilized on sepiolite was found as 0.148, 0.064, 0.098, 0.134 and 0.088 mmol/g for Cu, Zn, Fe, Ni and Cd, respectively. The proposed method was applied to the determination of trace metals in alloys (NBS SRM 85b). Trace metals have been determined with relative error lower than 10%. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.