Steady-state chemostat cultures of Azotobacter vinelandii strain CA11, carrying a deletion of genes encoding the structural polypeptides of nitrogenase nifHDK, were established in a simple defined medium chemically purified to minimize contamination by Mo. The medium contained no utilizable N source. Growth was dependent on N2 (1.1 × 10(8) viable cells × ml-1 at D = 0.176 h-1), and was inhibited by Mo (20 nM). DNA hybridization showed the deletion to be stable during prolonged (55 days) growth in the chemostat (132 doublings). Since batch cultures, using unsupplemented ‘spent’ chemostat medium, showed good growth (1.9 × 10(8) cells × ml-1), no requirement for subnanomolar concentrations of Mo was found. The biomass yield, as the dilution rate (D) was varied, showed that the N content of the culture, protein and dry wt. increased as D was decreased, indicating that neither N2 nor O2 were limiting growth. The limiting nutrient was not identified. Substantial amounts of H2 were evolved by the chemostat cultures, probably as the result of inhibition of O2-dependent hydrogenase activity by nitrilotriacetic acid present in the medium. Over a range of D values approx. 50% of the electron flux through the alternative system was allocated to H+ reduction. C2H2 was a poor substrate, being reduced at 0.14-0.1 times the rate of N2 fixation, calculated from the N content of the cells. SO4(2-)-limited steady-state continuous cultures of strain UW136 (wild-type for nifHDK) had a 2-fold greater biomass in the presence of MoO4(2-) (1 microM). The significance of this finding for ‘Mo-limited’ continuous cultures [Eady & Robson (1984) Biochem. J. 224, 853-862] is discussed.

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