In the study of metabolic networks, optimization techniques are often used to predict flux distributions, and hence, metabolic phenotype. Flux balance analysis in particular has been successful in predicting metabolic phenotypes. However, an inherent limitation of a stoichiometric approach such as flux balance analysis is that it can predict only flux distributions that result in maximal yields. Hence, previous attempts to use FBA to predict metabolic fluxes in Lactobacillus plantarum failed, as this lactic acid bacterium produces lactate, even under glucose-limited chemostat conditions, where FBA predicted mixed acid fermentation as an alternative pathway leading to a higher yield. In this study we tested, however, whether long-term adaptation on an unusual and poor carbon source (for this bacterium) would select for mutants with optimal biomass yields. We have therefore adapted Lactobacillus plantarum to grow well on glycerol as its main growth substrate. After prolonged serial dilutions, the growth yield and corresponding fluxes were compared to in silico predictions. Surprisingly, the organism still produced mainly lactate, which was corroborated by FBA to indeed be optimal. To understand these results, constraint-based elementary flux mode analysis was developed that predicted 3 out of 2669 possible flux modes to be optimal under the experimental conditions. These optimal pathways corresponded very closely to the experimentally observed fluxes and explained lactate formation as the result of competition for oxygen by the other flux modes. Hence, these results provide thorough understanding of adaptive evolution, allowing in silico predictions of the resulting flux states, provided that the selective growth conditions favor yield optimization as the winning strategy.
Being able to predict the metabolic fluxes and growth rate of a microorganism is an important topic in microbial systems biology. One approach, constraint-based modeling, uses a reconstructed metabolic network and optimization techniques to make such predictions. Although widely used, the success of this approach depends on a number of important assumptions. First, it assumes that evolutionary forces have shaped the metabolism towards optimality of, in most cases, growth rate. Second, through the nature of the modeling approach, it assumes that microorganisms maximize the growth rate through optimizing the yield on the growth substrate. Despite successes of the approach in model organisms such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Escherichia coli, we have previously observed that the approach fails in Lactobacillus plantarum, a lactic acid bacterium that clearly does not optimize its yield on glucose but “wastes” glucose by producing lactic acid. In the current study we provide evidence that L. plantarum does optimize its yield when grown under a poor carbon condition, i.e., when grown on glycerol as its main carbon source. The study provides new insight in when the application of in silico optimization techniques can be expected to be predictive.