Benzoate degradation by an anaerobic, syntrophic bacterium, strain SB, in coculture with Desulfovibrio sp. strain G-11 reached a threshold value which depended on the amount of acetate added and ranged from about 2.5 to 29.9 (mu)M. Increasing acetate concentrations also uncompetitively inhibited benzoate degradation. The apparent V(infmax) and apparent K(infm) for benzoate degradation decreased with increasing acetate concentration, but the benzoate degradation capacities (V(infmax)/K(infm)) of cell suspensions remained comparable. The addition of an acetate-using bacterium to cocultures after the threshold was reached resulted in the degradation of benzoate to below the detection limit. Mathematical simulations showed that the benzoate threshold was not predicted by the inhibitory effect of acetate on benzoate degradation kinetics. With nitrate instead of sulfate as the terminal electron acceptor, no benzoate threshold was observed in the presence of 20 mM acetate even though the kinetics of benzoate degradation were slower with nitrate rather than sulfate as the electron acceptor. When strain SB was grown with Desulfovibrio sp. strain DG2 that had a fourfold-lower V(infmax) for hydrogen use than strain G-11, the V(infmax) for benzoate degradation was 37-fold lower than that of strain SB-G-11 cocultures. The Gibb's free energy for benzoate degradation was less negative in cell suspensions with a threshold than in suspensions without a threshold. These studies showed that the threshold was not a function of the inhibition of benzoate degradation by acetate or the toxicity of the undissociated form of acetate. Rather, a critical or minimal Gibb's free energy may exist where thermodynamic constraints preclude further benzoate degradation.