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Tag words: bacterial growth, growth curve, lag phase, exponential growth, generation time, viable cell count, continuous culture.

Kenneth Todar currently teaches Microbiology 100 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His main teaching interests include general microbiology, bacterial diversity, microbial ecology and pathogenic bacteriology.

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The Growth of Bacterial Populations (page 4)

(This chapter has 4 pages)

© Kenneth Todar, PhD

Continuous Culture of Bacteria

The cultures so far discussed for growth of bacterial populations are called batch cultures. Since the nutrients are not renewed, exponential growth is limited to a few generations. Bacterial cultures can be maintained in a state of exponential growth over long periods of time using a system of continuous culture (Figure 4), designed to relieve the conditions that stop exponential growth in batch cultures. Continuous culture, in a device called a chemostat, can be used to maintain a bacterial population at a constant density, a situation that is, in many ways, more similar to bacterial growth in natural environments.

In a chemostat, the growth chamber is connected to a reservoir of sterile medium. Once growth is initiated, fresh medium is continuously supplied from the reservoir. The volume of fluid in the growth chamber is maintained at a constant level by some sort of overflow drain. Fresh medium is allowed to enter into the growth chamber at a rate that limits the growth of the bacteria. The bacteria grow (cells are formed) at the same rate that bacterial cells (and spent medium) are removed by the overflow. The rate of addition of the fresh medium determines the rate of growth because the fresh medium always contains a limiting amount of an essential nutrient. Thus, the chemostat relieves the insufficiency of nutrients, the accumulation of toxic substances, and the accumulation of excess cells in the culture, which are the parameters that initiate the stationary phase of the growth cycle. The bacterial culture can be grown and maintained at relatively constant conditions, depending on the flow rate of the nutrients.

Figure 4. Schematic diagram of a chemostat, a device for the continuous culture of bacteria. The chemostat relieves the environmental conditions that restrict growth by continuously supplying nutrients to cells and removing waste substances and spent cells from the culture medium.

Synchronous Growth of Bacteria

Studying the growth of bacterial populations in batch or continuous cultures does not permit any conclusions about the growth behavior of individual cells, because the distribution of cell size (and hence cell age) among the members of the population is completely random. Information about the growth behavior of individual bacteria can, however, be obtained by the study of synchronous cultures. Synchronized cultures must be composed of cells which are all at the same stage of the bacterial cell cycle. Measurements made on synchronized cultures are equivalent to measurements made on individual cells.

A number of clever techniques have been devised to obtain bacterial populations at the same stage in the cell cycle. Some techniques involve manipulation of environmental parameters which induces the population to start or stop growth at the same point in the cell cycle, while others are physical methods for selection of cells that have just completed the process of binary fission. Theoretically, the smallest cells in a bacterial population are those that have just completed the process of cell division.  Synchronous growth of a population of bacterial cells is illustrated in Figure 5. Synchronous cultures rapidly lose synchrony because not all cells in the population divide at exactly the same size, age or time.

Figure 5. The synchronous growth of a bacterial population. By careful selection of cells that have just divided, a bacterial population can be synchronized in the bacterial cell division cycle. Synchrony can be maintained for only a few generations.


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Kenneth Todar is an emeritus lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has taught microbiology to undergraduate students at The University of Texas, University of Alaska and University of Wisconsin since 1969.

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