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Open Access Research article

Metabolic modelling of polyhydroxyalkanoate copolymers production by mixed microbial cultures

João ML Dias, Adrian Oehmen, Luísa S Serafim, Paulo C Lemos, Maria AM Reis and Rui Oliveira*

Author Affiliations

REQUIMTE, Chemistry Department, FCT/Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2829-516 Caparica, Portugal

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BMC Systems Biology 2008, 2:59  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-2-59

Published: 8 July 2008



This paper presents a metabolic model describing the production of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) copolymers in mixed microbial cultures, using mixtures of acetic and propionic acid as carbon source material. Material and energetic balances were established on the basis of previously elucidated metabolic pathways. Equations were derived for the theoretical yields for cell growth and PHA production on mixtures of acetic and propionic acid as functions of the oxidative phosphorylation efficiency, P/O ratio. The oxidative phosphorylation efficiency was estimated from rate measurements, which in turn allowed the estimation of the theoretical yield coefficients.


The model was validated with experimental data collected in a sequencing batch reactor (SBR) operated under varying feeding conditions: feeding of acetic and propionic acid separately (control experiments), and the feeding of acetic and propionic acid simultaneously. Two different feast and famine culture enrichment strategies were studied: (i) either with acetate or (ii) with propionate as carbon source material. Metabolic flux analysis (MFA) was performed for the different feeding conditions and culture enrichment strategies. Flux balance analysis (FBA) was used to calculate optimal feeding scenarios for high quality PHA polymers production, where it was found that a suitable polymer would be obtained when acetate is fed in excess and the feeding rate of propionate is limited to ~0.17 C-mol/(C-mol.h). The results were compared with published pure culture metabolic studies.


Acetate was more conducive toward the enrichment of a microbial culture with higher PHA storage fluxes and yields as compared to propionate. The P/O ratio was not only influenced by the selected microbial culture, but also by the carbon substrate fed to each culture, where higher P/O ratio values were consistently observed for acetate than propionate. MFA studies suggest that when mixtures of acetate and propionate are fed to the cultures, the catabolic activity is primarily guaranteed through acetate uptake, and the characteristic P/O ratio of acetate prevails over that of propionate. This study suggests that the PHA production process by mixed microbial cultures has the potential to be comparable or even more favourable than pure cultures.