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Microb Cell Fact. 2008 Aug 7;7:26. doi: 10.1186/1475-2859-7-26.

High cell density media for Escherichia coli are generally designed for aerobic cultivations - consequences for large-scale bioprocesses and shake flask cultures.

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  • 1Bioprocess Engineering Laboratory, Dept, of Process and Environmental Engineering, University of Oulu, P, O, Box 4300, FIN-90014 Oulu, Finland. peter.neubauer@oulu.fi.



For the cultivation of Escherichia coli in bioreactors trace element solutions are generally designed for optimal growth under aerobic conditions. They do normally not contain selenium and nickel. Molybdenum is only contained in few of them. These elements are part of the formate hydrogen lyase (FHL) complex which is induced under anaerobic conditions. As it is generally known that oxygen limitation appears in shake flask cultures and locally in large-scale bioreactors, function of the FHL complex may influence the process behaviour. Formate has been described to accumulate in large-scale cultures and may have toxic effects on E. coli.Although the anaerobic metabolism of E. coli is well studied, reference data which estimate the impact of the FHL complex on bioprocesses of E. coli with oxygen limitation have so far not been published, but are important for a better process understanding.


Two sets of fed-batch cultures with conditions triggering oxygen limitation and formate accumulation were performed. Permanent oxygen limitation which is typical for shake flask cultures was caused in a bioreactor by reduction of the agitation rate. Transient oxygen limitation, which has been described to eventually occur in the feed-zone of large-scale bioreactors, was mimicked in a two-compartment scale-down bioreactor consisting of a stirred tank reactor and a plug flow reactor (PFR) with continuous glucose feeding into the PFR.In both models formate accumulated up to about 20 mM in the culture medium without addition of selenium, molybdenum and nickel. By addition of these trace elements the formate accumulation decreased below the level observed in well-mixed laboratory-scale cultures. Interestingly, addition of the extra trace elements caused accumulation of large amounts of lactate and reduced biomass yield in the simulator with permanent oxygen limitation, but not in the scale-down two-compartment bioreactor.


The accumulation of formate in oxygen limited cultivations of E. coli can be fully prevented by addition of the trace elements selenium, nickel and molybdenum, necessary for the function of FHL complex. For large-scale cultivations, if glucose gradients are likely, the results from the two-compartment scale-down bioreactor indicate that the addition of the extra trace elements is beneficial. No negative effects on the biomass yield or on any other bioprocess parameters could be observed in cultures with the extra trace elements if the cells were repeatedly exposed to transient oxygen limitation.

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