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Appl Environ Microbiol. 1984 Dec; 48(6): 1134–1139.
PMCID: PMC241699

Uncoupling by Acetic Acid Limits Growth of and Acetogenesis by Clostridium thermoaceticum


When cells of the anaerobic thermophile Clostridium thermoaceticum grow in batch culture and homoferment glucose to acetic acid, the pH of the medium decreases until growth and then acid production cease, at about pH 5. We postulated that the end product of fermentation limits growth by acting as an uncoupling agent. Thus, when the pH of the medium is low, the cytoplasm of the cells becomes acidified below a tolerable pH. We have therefore measured the internal pH of growing cells and compared these values with those of nongrowing cells incubated in the absence of acetic acid. Growing cells maintained an interior about 0.6 pH units more alkaline than the exterior throughout most of batch growth (i.e., ΔpH = 0.6). We also measured the transmembrane electrical potential (ΔΨ), which decreased from 140 mV at pH 7 at the beginning of growth to 80 mV when the medium had reached pH 5. The proton motive force, therefore, was 155 mV at pH 7, decreasing to 120 mV at pH 5. When further fermentation acidified the medium below pH 5, both the ΔpH and the ΔΨ collapsed, indicating that these cells require an internal pH of at least 5.5 to 5.7. Cells harvested from stationary phase and suspended in citrate-phosphate buffer maintained a ΔpH of 1.5 at external pH 5.0. This ΔpH was dissipated by acetic acid (at the concentrations found in the growth medium) and other weak organic acids, as well as by ionophores and inhibitors of glycolysis and of the H+-ATPase. Nongrowing cells had a ΔΨ which ranged from about 116 mV at external pH 7 to about 55 mV at external pH 5 and which also was sensitive to ionophores. Since acetic acid, in its un-ionized form, diffuses passively across the cytoplasmic membrane, it effectively renders the membrane permeable to protons. It therefore seems unlikely that mutations at one or a few loci would result in C. thermoaceticum cells significantly more acetic acid tolerant than their parental type.

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