Physiology of carbohydrate to solvent conversion by clostridia

Wilfrid J. Mitchell

    Research output: Contribution to journalLiterature reviewpeer-review

    172 Citations (Scopus)


    The solvent-forming clostridia have attracted interest because of their ability to convert a range of carbohydrates to end-products such as acetone, butanol and ethanol. Polymeric substrates such as cellulose, hemicellulose and starch are degraded by extracellular enzymes. The majority of cellulolytic clostridia, typified by Clostridium thermocellum, produce a multi-enzyme cellulase complex in which the organization of components is critical for activity against the crystalline substrate. A variety of enzymes involved in degradation of hemicellulose and starch have been identified in different strains. The products of degradation, and other soluble substrates, are accumulated via membrane-bound transport systems which are generally poorly characterized. It is clear, however, that the phosphoenolpyruvate-dependent phosphotransferase system (PTS) plays a major role in solute uptake in several species. Accumulated substrates are converted by intracellular enzymes to end-products characteristic of the organism, with production of ATP to support growth. The metabolic pathways have been described, but understanding of mechanisms of regulation of metabolism is incomplete. Synthesis of extracellular enzymes and membrane-bound transport systems is commonly subject to catabolite repression in the presence of a readily metabolized source of carbon and energy. While many genes encoding cellulases, xylanases and amylases have been cloned and sequenced, little is known of control of their expression. Although the mechanism of catabolite repression in clostridia is not understood, some recent findings implicate a role for the PTS as in other low G-C Gram-positive bacteria. Emphasis has been placed on describing the mechanisms underlying the switch of C. acetobutylicum fermentations from acidogenic to solventogenic metabolism at the end of the growth phase. Factors involved include a lowered pH and accumulation of undissociated butyric acid, intracellular concentration of ATP and reduced pyridine nucleotides, nutrient limitation, and the interplay between pathways of carbon and electron flow. Genes encoding enzymes of solvent pathways have been cloned and sequenced, and their expression correlated with the pattern of end-product formation in fermentations. There is evidence that the initiation of solvent formation may be subject to control mechanisms similar to other stationary-phase phenomena, including sporulation. The application of recently developed techniques for genetic manipulation of the bacterium is improving understanding of the regulatory circuits, but a complete molecular description of the control of solvent formation remains elusive. Experimental manipulation of the pathways of electron flow in other species has been shown to influence the range and yield of fermentation end-products. Acid-forming clostridia can, under appropriate conditions, be induced to form atypical solvents as products. While the mechanisms of regulation of gene expression are not at all understood, the capacity to adapt in this way further illustrates the metabolic flexibility of clostridial strains.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)31-130
    Number of pages100
    JournalAdvances in Microbial Physiology
    Publication statusPublished - 1998


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