A theoretical analysis has been made of carbon conversion efficiency during heterotrophic microbial growth. The expectation was that the maximal growth yield occurs when all the substrate is assimilated and the net flow of carbon through dissimilation is zero. This, however, is not identical to a 100% carbon conversion, since assimilatory pathways lead to a net production of CO2. It can be shown that the amount of CO2 produced by way of assimilatory processes is dependent upon the nature of the carbon source, but independent of its degree of reduction and varies between 12 and 29% of the substrate carbon. An analysis of published yield data reveals that nearly complete assimilation can occur during growth on substrates with a high energy content. This holds for substrates with a heat of combustion of ca. 550 kJ/mol C, or a degree of reduction higher than 5 (e.g. ethane, ethanol, and methanol). Complete assimilation can also be achieved on substrates with a lower energy content, provided that an auxiliary energy source is present that cannot be used as a carbon source. This is evident from the cell yields reported for Candida utilis grown on glucose plus formate and for Thiobacillus versutus grown on acetate plus thiosulfate. This evaluation of the carbon conversion efficiency during assimilation also made it possible to compare the energy content of the auxiliary energy substrate added with the quantity of the carbon source it had replaced. It will be shown that utilization of the auxiliary energy source may lead to extreme changes in the efficiency of dissimilatory processes.
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