The effects of fermentation acids on bacterial growth

James B. Russell, Francisco Diez-Gonzalez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

308 Scopus citations


Anaerobic habitats often have low pH and high concentrations of fermentation acids, and these conditions can inhibit the growth of many bacteria. The toxicity of fermentation acids at low pH was traditionally explained by an uncoupling mechanism. Undissociated fermentation acids can pass across the cell membrane and dissociate in the more alkaline interior, but there is little evidence that they can act in a cyclic manner to dissipate protonmotive force. Fermentation acid dissociation in the more alkaline interior causes an accumulation of the anionic species, and this accumulation is dependent on the pH gradient (ΔpH) across the membrane. Fermentation acid-resistant bacteria have low ΔpH and are able to generate ATP and grow with a low intracellular pH. Escherichia coli O157:H7 is able to decrease its intracellular pH to 6.1 before growth ceases, but this modest decrease in ΔpH can only partially counteract the toxic effect of fermentation anion accumulation. Fermentation acid-resistant bacteria are in most cases Gram-positive bacteria with a high intracellular potassium concentration, and even acid-sensitive bacteria like E. coli K-12 have increased potassium levels when fermentation acids are present. Intracellular potassium provides a countercation for fermentation acid anions, and allows bacteria to tolerate even greater amounts of fermentation anions. The ΔpH-mediated anion accumulation provides a mechanistic explanation for the effect of fermentation acids on microbial ecology and metabolism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)228-234
Number of pages7
JournalAdvances in Microbial Physiology
StatePublished - Dec 1 1998

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