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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Decrease of energy spilling in Escherichia coli continuous cultures with rising specific growth rate and carbon wasting

Kaspar Valgepea12, Kaarel Adamberg23 and Raivo Vilu12*

Author Affiliations

1 Tallinn University of Technology, Department of Chemistry, Akadeemia tee 15, 12618 Tallinn, Estonia

2 Competence Centre of Food and Fermentation Technologies, Akadeemia tee 15b, 12618 Tallinn, Estonia

3 Tallinn University of Technology, Department of Food Processing, Ehitajate tee 5, 19086 Tallinn, Estonia

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BMC Systems Biology 2011, 5:106  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-5-106

Published: 5 July 2011



Growth substrates, aerobic/anaerobic conditions, specific growth rate (μ) etc. strongly influence Escherichia coli cell physiology in terms of cell size, biomass composition, gene and protein expression. To understand the regulation behind these different phenotype properties, it is useful to know carbon flux patterns in the metabolic network which are generally calculated by metabolic flux analysis (MFA). However, rarely is biomass composition determined and carbon balance carefully measured in the same experiments which could possibly lead to distorted MFA results and questionable conclusions. Therefore, we carried out both detailed carbon balance and biomass composition analysis in the same experiments for more accurate quantitative analysis of metabolism and MFA.


We applied advanced continuous cultivation methods (A-stat and D-stat) to continuously monitor E. coli K-12 MG1655 flux and energy metabolism dynamic responses to change of μ and glucose-acetate co-utilisation. Surprisingly, a 36% reduction of ATP spilling was detected with increasing μ and carbon wasting to non-CO2 by-products under constant biomass yield. The apparent discrepancy between constant biomass yield and decline of ATP spilling could be explained by the rise of carbon wasting from 3 to 11% in the carbon balance which was revealed by the discovered novel excretion profile of E. coli pyrimidine pathway intermediates carbamoyl-phosphate, dihydroorotate and orotate. We found that carbon wasting patterns are dependent not only on μ, but also on glucose-acetate co-utilisation capability. Accumulation of these compounds was coupled to the two-phase acetate accumulation profile. Acetate overflow was observed in parallel with the reduction of TCA cycle and glycolysis fluxes, and induction of pentose phosphate pathway.


It can be concluded that acetate metabolism is one of the major regulating factors of central carbon metabolism. More importantly, our model calculations with actual biomass composition and detailed carbon balance analysis in steady state conditions with -omics data comparison demonstrate the importance of a comprehensive systems biology approach for more advanced understanding of metabolism and carbon re-routing mechanisms potentially leading to more successful metabolic engineering.