The physiological role of the periplasmic nitrate reductase, Nap, one of the three nitrate reductases synthesized by Escherichia coli K-12, has been investigated. A series of double mutants that express only one nitrate reductase were grown anaerobically in batch cultures with glycerol as the non-fermentable carbon source and nitrate as the terminal electron acceptor. Only the strain expressing nitrate reductase A grew rapidly under these conditions. Introduction of a narL mutation severely decreased the growth rate of the nitrate reductase A strain, but enhanced the growth of the Nap+ strain. The ability to use nitrate as a terminal electron acceptor for anaerobic growth is therefore regulated primarily by the NarL protein at the level of transcription. Furthermore, the strain expressing nitrate reductase A had a substantial selective advantage in competition with the strain expressing only Nap during nitrate-sufficient continuous culture. However, the strain expressing Nap was preferentially selected during nitrate-limited continuous growth. The saturation constants for nitrate for the two strains (which numerically are equal to the nitrate concentrations at half of the maximum specific growth rate and therefore reflect the relative affinities for nitrate) were estimated using the integrated Monod equation to be 15 and 50 μM for Nap and nitrate reductase A respectively. This difference is sufficient to explain the selective advantage of the Nap+ strain during nitrate-limited growth. It is concluded that one physiological role of the periplasmic nitrate reductase of enteric bacteria is to enable bacteria to scavenge nitrate in nitrate-limited environments.

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