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J Biotechnol. 2006 Feb 24;121(4):517-33. Epub 2005 Sep 26.

Thermodynamics of microbial growth and metabolism: an analysis of the current situation.

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Laboratory of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland.


This paper attempts to review in how far thermodynamic analysis can be used to understand and predict the performance of microorganisms with respect to growth and bio-product synthesis. In the first part, a simple thermodynamic model of microbial growth is developed which explains the relationship between the driving force for growth in terms of Gibbs energy dissipation and biomass yield. From the currently available literature, it appears that the Gibbs energy dissipation per C-mol of biomass grown, which represents the driving force for chemotrophic growth, may have been adapted by evolutionary processes to strike a reasonable compromise between metabolic rate and growth efficiency. Based on empirical correlations of the C-molar Gibbs energy dissipation, the wide variety of biomass yields observed in nature can be explained and roughly predicted. This type of analysis may be highly useful in environmental applications, where such wide variations occur. It is however not able to predict biomass yields in very complex systems such as mammalian cells nor is it able to predict or to assess bio-product or recombinant protein yields. For this purpose, a much more sophisticated treatment that accounts for individual metabolic pathways separately is required. Based on glycolysis as a test example, it is shown in the last part that simple thermodynamic analysis leads to erroneous conclusions even in well-known, simple cases. Potential sources for errors have been analyzed and can be used to identify the most important needs for future research.

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