Production or consumption of protons in growth medium during microbial metabolism plays an important role in determining the pH of the environment. Such pH changes resulting from microbial metabolism may influence the geochemical speciation of many elements in subsurface environments. Protons produced or consumed during microbial growth were measured by determining the amount of acid or base added in a 5 L batch bioreactor equipped with pH control for different species including Escherichia coli, Geobacter sulfurreducens, and Geobacter metallireducens.
An in silico model was used to predict the proton secretion or consumption rates and the results were compared with the data. The data was found to confirm predictions of proton consumption during aerobic growth of E. coli with acetate as the carbon source. However, in contrast to proton consumption observed during aerobic growth of E. coli with acetate, proton secretion was observed during growth of Geobacter species with acetate as the donor and Fe(III) as the extracellular electron acceptor.
In this study, we have also shown that the final pH of the medium can be either acidic or basic depending on the choice of the electron acceptor for the same electron donor. In all cases, the in silico model could predict qualitatively the proton production/consumption rates obtained from the experimental data. Therefore, measurements of pH equivalents generated or consumed during growth can help characterize the microbial physiology further and can be valuable for optimizing practical applications such as microbial fuel cells, where growth associated pH changes can limit current generation rates.