What They Saw
The capsuleless strain of A. beijerinckii they used in this study accumulated up to 70% of its dry weight as PHB in batch culture, like its parent, whether or not it was fixing nitrogen. It started accumulating right when the culture became oxygen-limited.
So they grew A. beijerinckii in low-oxygen continuous culture with ammonium. Oxygen was about 1.75%, flowing at 0.4 liters per minute. As the dilution rate increased, dry weight and PHB proportions decreased, and the cells consumed less of the available carbon and nitrogen. PHB only got up to 50% though.
When they reduced the ammonium and kept oxygen constant at about 5% saturation, they saw constant PHB at 1% of dry weight and all the ammonium was consumed (so, ammonium-limiting growth), but total dry weight and carbon consumption showed the same pattern as before.
They tried even lower levels of oxygen to see if they could get PHB up to 70% of dry weight in continuous like in batch cultures, and succeeded, when oxygen was only 0.275% of the inflow, and dilution rates were fairly high (0.18 h-1). Actually at very low oxygen, higher dilution rate meant higher PHB content, then the trend reversed at a bit higher oxygen, and then returned at an even higher level. The reversal took place when the total biomass had peaked in the highest dilution rate:
|Ward et al. 1977|
As in a previous study (114), the question came up of what oxygen limitation actually means: is it the point at which oxygen is the only nutrient holding cells back from growth, or is it the point at which they change their metabolism to start producing PHB? It is poorly defined.
The biggest difference seen between nitrogen-fixing and nitrogen-assimilating conditions is the high-low-high pattern seen with ammonium, compared to a steady decrease seen when fixing nitrogen. So it seems like the main difference may only be that nitrogen fixation requires so much more energy.