A Large bioreactor is an inhomogenous system with concentration gradients which depend on the fluid dynamics and the mass transfer of the reactor, the feeding strategy, the saturation constant, and the cell density. The responses of Escherichia coli cells to short-term oscillations of the carbon/energy substrate in glucose limited fed-batch cultivations were studied in a two-compartment reactor system consisting of a stirred tank reactor (STR) and an aerated plug flow reactor (PFR) as a recycle loop. Short-term glucose excess or starvation in the PFR was simulated by feeding of glucose to the PFR or to the STR alternatively. The cellular response to repeated short-term glucose excess was a transient increase of glucose consumption and acetate formation. But, there was no accumulation of acetate in the culture, because it was consumed in the STR part where the glucose concentration was growth limiting. However, acetate accumulated during the cultivation if the oxygen supply in the PFR was insufficient, causing higher acetate formation. The biomass yield was then negatively influenced, which was also the case if the PFR was used to simulate a glucose starvation zone. The results suggest that short-term heterogeneities influence the cellular physiology and growth, and can be of major importance for the process performance. © 1995 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.