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Appl Microbiol Biotechnol (2002) 59:33–39
DOI 10.1007/s00253-002-0964-1
O R I G I N A L PA P E R
Harald Bothe · K. Møller Jensen · A. Mergel · J. Larsen
C. Jørgensen · Hermann Bothe · L. Jørgensen
Heterotrophic bacteria growing in association with Methylococcus
capsulatus (Bath) in a single cell protein production process
Received: 5 November 2001 / Revised: 30 January 2002 / Accepted: 31 January 2002 / Published online: 4 April 2002
© Springer-Verlag 2002
Abstract The methanotrophic bacterium Methylococcus
capsulatus (Bath) grows on pure methane. However, in a
single cell protein production process using natural gas
as methane source, a bacterial consortium is necessary to
support growth over longer periods in continuous cultures.
In different bioreactors of Norferm Danmark A/S, three
bacteria consistently invaded M. capsulatus cultures
growing under semi-sterile conditions in continuous
culture. These bacteria have now been identified as a not
yet described member of the Aneurinibacillus group, a
Brevibacillus agri strain, and an acetate-oxidiser of the
genus Ralstonia. The physiological roles of these bacteria
in the bioreactor culture growing on natural, non-pure
methane gas are discussed. The heterotrophic bacteria do
not have the genetic capability to produce either the
haemolytic enterotoxin complex HBL or non-haemolytic
enterotoxin.
Introduction
Norferm Danmark A/S has developed BioProtein, a
bacterial single cell protein (SCP) product that serves as
a protein source in feedstuff. The culture mainly consists
of the methanotrophic bacterium, Methylococcus capsulatus (Bath). Methanotrophs can utilise methane as a sole
source of carbon and energy (reviewed by Hanson and
Hanson 1996). The first step in methane conversion is
Harald Bothe (✉) · K. Møller Jensen · J. Larsen · C. Jørgensen
Hermann Bothe · L. Jørgensen
Norferm Danmark A/S, Stenhuggervej 22,
5230 Odense M, Denmark
A. Mergel · Hermann Bothe
Botanisches Institut, Universität zu Köln, Gyrhofstrasse 15,
50923 Cologne, Germany
Present address:
Harald Bothe, Institut für Lebensmitteltechnologie,
Universität Hohenheim, Emil-Wolff-Strasse 14,
70599 Stuttgart, Germany,
e-mail: [email protected],
Tel.: +49-711-4592313, Fax: +49-711-4594276
the oxidation of methane to methanol catalysed by methane monooxygenase (MMO). Two types of MMOs are
known: a cytoplasmic or soluble form (sMMO) and a
membrane-bound or particulate enzyme (pMMO). High
copper/cell ratios in the culture favour pMMO synthesis,
whereas sMMO is formed at low copper/biomass ratios
(Stanley et al. 1983). When M. capsulatus is used for
SCP production, pMMO formation is preferred because
this enzyme allows a more efficient carbon to biomass
conversion than sMMO (Jørgensen and Degn 1987).
Besides methane, both sMMO and pMMO oxidise
several other substrates (Colby and Dalton 1978; Stirling
and Dalton 1979; Dalton 1981). Generally, pMMO
exhibits a narrower substrate spectrum than sMMO.
pMMO only catalyses the oxidation of unbranched alkanes
and alcenes of up to five C-atoms (Hou et al. 1980;
Burrows et al. 1984), and mainly ethane, but also propane,
can serve as alternative substrates to methane oxidation
(Carlsen 1992). Reaction products of pMMO, such as
ethanol or propanol, can be further oxidised by the subsequent enzymes of the methane oxidation pathway, i.e.
methanol dehydrogenase and formaldehyde dehydrogenase, leading to the accumulation of carboxylic acids in
the bioreactor (Leadbetter and Forster 1958; Linton and
Drozd 1982). Such acids and other possible oxidation
products can cause toxicity in the bioreactor (Sullivan et
al. 1998). Acetate, for example, inhibits growth of
M. capsulatus (Zhivotchenko et al. 1989).
Depending on the gas field, natural gas contains
different concentrations of ethane (2.7–20.0%), propane
(0.4–13.0%) and higher alkanes (0.1–6.1%; Linton and
Drozd 1982). Hence, acetate and propionate accumulate
in the production plant. One solution to overcome toxic
levels of these carboxylic acids is to establish a stable
mixed culture with heterotrophic bacteria (Wilkinson et
al. 1974).
In various experiments performed at different bioreactors of Norferm Danmark A/S, three different bacteria
were repeatedly found to invade M. capsulatus cultures
growing under semi-sterile conditions. These bacteria
were isolated and characterised as a Gram-negative
34
acetate oxidiser (termed “DB3”) and two Gram-positive,
spore-forming rods (“DB4” and “DB5”). These three
heterotrophic strains represented typically less than
2% of the total bacterial population of semi-sterile
M. capsulatus cultures growing on pure methane. However,
cultures growing on a mixture of methane and ethane
(95%/5%) contained up to 13% heterotrophs. The percentage of each heterotroph varied considerably depending
on the gas mixture, but DB3 was always the dominant
bacterium. When grown in continuous culture on natural
gas (composed of approximately 91% methane, 5%
ethane, 1.7% propane, 1% butane and traces of higher
alkanes; supplied by Naturgas Fyn, Odense, Denmark),
the following composition was observed: 80% M. capsulatus, 19% DB3, 0.3% DB4 and 0.5% DB5. M. capsulatus
did not grow for longer periods (i.e. 2–3 days) on natural
gas in the absence of the heterotrophs. A detailed characterisation of these bacteria is described in the present
communication.
Since BioProtein serves as feedstuff, the formation of
toxins by the heterotrophs has to be ruled out. Some
Bacillus isolates, namely strains of B. cereus, are known
to produce several enterotoxins. The haemolytic enterotoxin complex HBL is probably the primary virulence
factor in B. cereus diarrhoea (Beecher et al. 1995) and
the capability to form HBL is widely distributed in the
B. cereus group (Prüß et al. 1999). Additionally, a
non-haemolytic enterotoxin (NHE) is involved in food
poisoning (Lund and Granum 1996, 1997). The availability
of the genes nhe and hbl, coding for these toxins, allows
PCR-based identification using published primers annealing to conserved regions (Heinrichs et al. 1993; Ryan et
al. 1997; Granum et al. 1999).
Materials and methods
primers forward non-EUB 338 (Wallner et al. 1993) and RM 2,
a 1.35 kb product using primers RM 1 and “reverse 2”
(5′-TGCTGATCCGCGATTACTAGC-3′), and a 1.5 kb product
using primers RM 1 and “reverse 1”. For the amplification of 350
or 700 bp PCR products, the following 30 cycles were carried out:
20 s, 94°C; 45 s, 50°C and 60 s, 72°C. To obtain 1.35 or 1.5 kb
products, the following 30 cycles were used: 20 s, 94°C; 60 s,
50°C and 90 s, 72°C. The PCR products were purified using a
Qiaquick DNA purification kit (Qiagen, Hilden, Germany). DNA
was then ligated into the sequencing vector pGEM T-Easy
(Promega, Madison, Wis.). Escherichia coli XL1-blue (Stratagene,
The Netherlands) was transformed with the ligation mixtures.
Plasmid DNA was isolated from E. coli clones by the alkaline
lysis method (Birnboim and Doly 1979). Sequencing was performed
on an ABI PRISM 337 DNA Sequencer (PE Applied Biosystems,
Weiterstadt, Germany). The PCR products amplified from the
DNA of DB3 and DB5 16S rRNA genes were sequenced three
times and the DB4 PCR segment was sequenced twice. The data
were analysed using the database of the NCBI (USA).
PCR assay for enterotoxin genes nhe and hbl
A liquid overnight batch culture of B. cereus CCUG 7414 was
used to prepare genomic DNA (Marmur 1961). Approximately
50 ng of each B. cereus, DB3, DB4 and DB5 genomic DNA was
used as PCR template. The sequences of primers (50 pmol each)
for the amplification of the nheB-nheC genes were: 5′-CGGTTCATCTGTTGCGACAGC-3′ and 5′-CGACTTCTGCTTGTGCTCCTG-3′ (Granum et al. 1999). Primers for the amplification of
the hblD-hblA genes were: 5′-CGCTCAAGAACAAAAAGTAGG-3′
and 5′-CTCCTTGTAAATCTGTAATCCCT-3′ (Heinrichs et al.
1993). The 30 PCR cycles were: 20 s, 94°C followed by 60 s, 50,
53 or 55°C and finally 90 s, 72°C.
PCR identification of strains belonging to the Brevibacillus
and the Aneurinibacillus groups
A segment of the 16S rRNA gene of DB5 was amplified with
primers BREV174 and 1377R following a published protocol
(Shida et al. 1996). A 16S rRNA gene specific segment of DB4
was obtained with primers ANEU506F (position 519 was changed
to A) and 1377R (Shida et al. 1996).
Isolation and growth of bacteria
Biochemical and microbiological assays
M. capsulatus (Bath) NCIMB 11132 was grown in nitrate/mineral
salts (NMS) medium as described by Larsen and Jørgensen
(1996). Strains DB3, DB4 and DB5 were repeatedly isolated from
M. capsulatus cultures growing in continuous culture on a mixture
of 95% methane and 5% ethane (v/v); these strains were plated out
on Plate Count Agar (Difco). Pure cultures of B. cereus CCUG
7414, DB3, DB4 and DB5 were grown in 50 ml yeast extract
(20 g/l) at 45°C with shaking at 200 rpm.
Cloning and sequencing of 16S rRNA genes
Genomic DNA was prepared from liquid overnight cultures of
DB3 and DB5 and from a 2-day-old liquid culture of DB4 by the
method of Marmur (1961). For PCR experiments, a DNA thermal
cycler (Biometra), Taq polymerase (Promega, Madison, Wis.) and
primers (synthesised by MWG Biotech, Ebersberg, Germany)
were used. PCR amplification of a 1.5 kb segment of the 16S
rRNA gene of DB3 was carried out using primers RM 1
(5′-AGAGTTTGATCMTGGCTCAGAWTR-3′) and “reverse 1”
(5′-ACGGYTACCTTGTTACGACTT-3′). From the DB4 16S
rRNA gene, a 700 bp segment of the 5′-end was amplified by using
primers RM 1 and RM 2 (5′-GA CTCTACGCATTTCACCGCTAC-3′). In the case of the 16S rRNA gene of DB5, three
individual PCR products were obtained: a 350 bp segment using
Assimilation of citrate was tested with Simmon’s Citrate Agar
(Difco). For Gram-staining, bacteria were grown for 24 h on
Nutrient Agar (Difco), suspended in 3% KOH for lysis of Gram
negative cells (Gregersen 1978) and stained using the Difco kit.
Spore formation was tested with a suspension (in 0.9% NaCl) of
cells grown on Nutrient Agar at 45°C and heat-treated for 15 min
at 85°C (Claus and Berkeley 1986). Tests for acid formation from
fructose and mannitol (10 g/l) were performed in tubes with OF
basal medium (Difco). Acid formation from ethanol (1% v/v)
was tested in slanted tubes with aerobic low peptone medium
(Hendrickson and Krenz 1991). Urease activity was tested on
Christensen’s Urea Agar (Oxoid). The Voges-Proskauer reaction
was performed by adding 3 ml of 40% NaOH and 0.6 g creatine to
5 ml V-P-bouillon after 5 days of incubation at 45°C (Claus and
Berkeley 1986). Catalase activity was determined as described by
Claus and Berkeley (1986). For further identification, the API 50
CHB test (BioMerieux, France) was used at 45°C. Formic, acetic,
propionic, and butyric acids (all 0.1%, w/v), alanine and glycine
(both 0.1 M) were assayed as growth substrates in NMS medium
(Whittenbury et al. 1970). DNA was quantified by the diphenylamine method (Herbert et al. 1971), RNA by the orcinol method
(Herbert et al. 1971) and proteins using a BioRad kit (BioRad,
Munich, Germany). Total organic carbon (TOC) was measured
using a Shimadzu TOC-5000 analyser.
35
Table 1 Sequence identities of the DNA coding for the 16S rRNA
gene of DB3. The numbers in brackets represent the position of
the bases compared with the DB3 sequences. The 5′-end of the
Ralstonia gilardii LMG 5886 gene contains a number of unidentified
bases lowering the sequence identity
16S rRNA of
Ralstonia sp. PHS 1
Burkholderia sp. C37KA
R. gilardii LMG 5886
R. eutropha JS 705
R. paucula LMG 3413
5′-end (1–487)
(%)
3′-end (939–1489)
(%)
98.5
97.5
94.0
95.9
95.7
98.7
98.8
98.5
98.1
98.2
Table 2 Identities of a 700 bp sequence coding for the 5′-end of the
DB4 16S rRNA gene
16S rRNA of
Similarity to the
DB4 sequence (%)
Bacillus aneurinolyticus DSM 5562
Bacillus migulanus DSM 2895
Aneurinibacillus migulanus ATCC 9999
Bacillus acidovorans ATCC 51159
Aneurinibacillus aneurinolyticus NCIMB 10056
Bacillus thermoaerophilus DSM 10154
97.0
96.8
96.7
96.3
95.9
94.3
Strain DB3 has been deposited with the National Collections
of Industrial and Marine Bacteria, Aberdeen, Scotland, as
“Alcaligenes acidovorans” NCIMB 13287. Strain DB4 has been
deposited as NCIMB 13288 and strain DB5 as NCIMB 13289.
The GenBank sequence accession numbers for strain DB3 are
AF369868 (5′-end of the putative 16S rRNA gene sequence) and
AF369869 (3′-end). The partial 16S rRNA gene sequence from
strain DB4 has the GenBank accession number AF369870.
Results
Molecular biological identification
of DB3, DB4, and DB5
To identify DB3, the 5′- and 3′-ends of a 1.5 kb PCR
product of the 16S rRNA gene were sequenced. The
sequence shares strong identities with 16S rRNA genes
from various Ralstonia strains (Table 1), especially with
strain PHS 1 (Lee and Lee 2000).
For DB4, the sequence of a 16S rRNA gene specific
segment starting at the 5′-end and totalling 699 nucleotides was determined. The sequence was 94–97%
identical to 16S rRNA sequences of members of the
Aneurinibacillus cluster (Shida et al. 1996, see Table 2).
A variation equal to 2% between two sequences is generally interpreted that an isolate (in this case DB4) is not
identical to any other organism deposited so far (Fox et
al. 1992). The identities of around 95% are, however,
strong enough to assign this bacterium to the Aneurinibacillus cluster. Members of this cluster share less than
91.3% identity with species from other clusters (Shida et
al. 1996).
When a PCR protocol including a specific primer to
identify members of the Aneurinibacillus group (Shida et
Table 3 Sequence identities of the DNA coding for the DB5 16S
rRNA gene. The numbers in brackets represent the position of the
bases compared with the DB5 sequences. The first 44 bp from the
5′-end and the last 90 bp towards the 3′-end were omitted because
not all the sequences available from the database are complete at
these positions
16S rRNA of
5′-end
3′-end
(45–700) (850–1,410)
(%)
(%)
Brevibacillus agri NRRL NRS-1219
Bacillus agri NRRL NRS-1689
Brevibacillus formosus NRRL NRS-863
Brevibacillus reuszeri NRRL NRS-1206
Brevibacillus choshiensis HPD 52
Brevibacillus sp. Riau
Brevibacillus parabrevis IFO 12334
Brevibacillus brevis JCM 2503
Bacillus brevis NCIMB 9372
Brevibacillus centrosporus NRRL NRS-664
Brevibacillus sp. 96452
Brevibacillus borstelensis NRRL NRS-818
Bacillus laterosporus NCDO 1763
99.1
99.5
97.5
97.5
97.4
98.0
96.8
95.8
96.5
94.3
93.5
94.8
91.1
99.0
99.0
99.7
98.8
98.8
98.4
99.1
99.1
–
99.1
99.1
97.4
98.4
al. 1996) was applied, a PCR segment of the expected
size (ca. 900 bp) was obtained. No PCR product was
generated from DB5 when the same primers and conditions were used.
For DB5, three individual PCR products of 0.35, 1.35
and 1.5 kb were used to determine the sequence of the
16S rRNA gene. The available information covers the
first 700 nucleotides from the 5′-end of the gene,
followed by a gap of 145 nucleotides. The residual bases
towards the 3′-end were also sequenced. The analysed
parts of the DB5 gene are more than 99% identical to
Brevibacillus agri NRRL NRS-1219 and Bacillus agri
NRRL NRS-1689 indicating that DB5 is a Brevibacillus
agri strain (Shida et al. 1996). High homologies to other
strains of the Brevibacillus group were found (Table 3).
Using specific primers for identifying members of the
Brevibacillus cluster (Shida et al. 1996), a PCR segment
of the expected size (ca. 1.2 kb) was amplified from
genomic DNA of DB5. No PCR product was detected
when genomic DNA from DB4 served as template.
Morphological and biochemical characteristics
of DB3, DB4, and DB5
DB3 (Ralstonia sp.)
When grown on nutrient agar for 48 h at 45°C, strain
DB3 formed shiny, cream-coloured colonies of 2–3 mm
diameter. The morphology of the colonies varied from
circular with a smooth surface and entire edge to irregular
with a rough surface. The colonies contained straight
rods with a diameter of 0.7 µm and a length of 2.0–3.0
(exceptionally 5.0) µm. Cells were motile by means of
peritrichous flagella. Gram-staining and electron transmission microscopy showed that DB3 is Gram-negative.
The isolate did not form spores, and no viable cells were
36
Table 4 Analysis of supernatant
fractions from a pure methanegrown continuous culture of
Methylococcus capsulatus
before and after 48 h of incubation at 45°C. Bacteria (strains
DB3, DB4 or DB5) were added
to some of the fractions. The
lowest line displays colonyforming units (cfu) at the end
of the incubation; cfu were
measured on Plate Count Agar
after incubation at 45°C for
another 48 h
Before
After incubation
incubation
Supernatant Supernatant Supernatant Supernatant Supernatant
– bacteria + DB3
+ DB4
+ DB5
Total organic carbon (TOC) (ppm) 189
Protein (ppm)
118
Free amino acids (ppm)
34
RNA (ppm)
62
DNA (ppm)
12
Acetate (ppm)
6
Cfu/ml
<101
present in a cell suspension heat-treated for 15 min at
85°C.
The bacterium DB3 was catalase, oxidase and VogesProskauer positive. It did not synthesise indole and did
not form ornithine decarboxylase, β-galactosidase, urease,
lysine decarboxylase, and tryptophan deaminase. It
hydrolysed Tween 80 and gelatine, but not aesculin and
did not produce acid from glucose. Neither reduction of
NO3– to NO2– or N2 nor reduction of SO42– to H2S was
observed under anaerobic incubation. DB3 grew on yeast
extract (3 g l–1) at pH values from 5.4 to 9.1 and the
temperature optimum was 47°C.
DB4 (Aneurinibacillus sp.)
Colonies of this isolate had a diameter of 4–6 mm when
grown on nutrient agar for 24 h at 45°C. They had a
dome-shaped form with white edges, smooth surface and
a creamy consistency. In transmission light microscopy,
they appeared dark because of the high content of ellipsoid spores of 0.5×1 µm within the colonies. These also
contained straight rods of a diameter of 1–1.5 µm and a
length of 3–8 µm. Strain DB4 was Gram-positive and
non-motile under the growth conditions employed.
The isolate DB4 was catalase and oxidase positive,
Voges-Proskauer negative and hydrolysed gelatine. It did
not produce ornithine decarboxylase, β-galactosidase,
indole, urease, lysine decarboxylase, arginine dihydrolase
or tryptophan deaminase. The isolate did not produce
acid from glucose. It reduced NO3– to NO2– and NO2– to
N2, but not SO42– to H2S.
DB5 (Brevibacillus agri)
After 24 h at 45°C on nutrient agar, DB5 colonies had a
diameter of 2–4 mm. They were flat, circular and
yellowish with a rough surface and uneven edge and
contained motile rods of 0.8–1.0×2–6 µm that tested
Gram-positive. Spores, which had a cylindrical shape of
0.5–0.7×1.5–2.5 µm, were occasionally observed. The
isolate DB5 was catalase, oxidase and Voges-Proskauer
negative. It synthesised arginine dihydrolase, but not
ornithine decarboxylase, β-galactosidase, indole, urease,
lysine decarboxylase or tryptophan deaminase. The cells
196
58
56
75
12
6
<101
157
59
5
80
13
0
5.0×107
161
64
7
68
12
0
1.3×107
133
66
1
68
6
4
3.8×106
hydrolysed gelatine and produced acid from glucose. They
did not form NO2– from NO3– or H2S from SO42–.
The three isolates remove organic compounds
from M. capsulatus cultures
The three isolates were tested for their capacity to grow
on organic matter released by a M. capsulatus culture. A
cell-free supernatant fraction from a pure continuous
methane-grown culture of M. capsulatus was incubated
for 48 h at 45°C. Afterwards, the fraction contained
approximately half of the original protein concentration,
whereas the amino acid content was significantly
increased (Table 4). This suggests that M. capsulatus
proteases degrade proteins present in the supernatant.
When the heterotrophic isolates DB3, DB4 and DB5
were added separately to parallel supernatant aliquots, a
substantial reduction of amino acids (from 34 to 7 ppm)
was observed after the incubation period, indicating that
all three strains utilised amino acids. The amount of protein was not significantly altered in any of the experiments compared to the reference incubation without bacteria, showing that the heterotrophs did not utilise whole
protein. The RNA content was also unaltered, whereas
DB5 degraded DNA (from 12 to 6 ppm). DB3 and DB4
were observed to utilise acetate completely. Total organic
carbon was most effectively reduced by DB5 (from 190
to 133 ppm), and DB3 and DB4 were also able to minimise TOC (both to a level of ca. 160 ppm).
The growth of the isolates on acetate was investigated
in another set of batch culture experiments. In NMS
(Larsen and Jørgensen 1996) with 0.9% (w/v) acetate as
sole carbon source, DB3 grew at a rate, µ =0.60 h–1 to a
yield, Y =0.43 g biomass/g acetate during exponential
growth. The data for DB4 are: µ =0.58 h–1 and Y =0.40 g
biomass/g acetate. DB5 grew at µ =0.45 h–1 to Y =0.30 g
biomass/g acetate.
PCR-based assay for enterotoxins
In PCR experiments, primers designed for the amplification of segments of the toxicity genes nhe (Granum et al.
1999) and hbl (Heinrichs et al. 1993; Ryan et al. 1997)
were tested. Using genomic DNA isolated from B. cereus
37
as a positive control, an nhe-specific PCR product of
1.45 kb and an hbl-specific segment of 1.65 kb were
amplified. No PCR products were obtained when genomic
DNA of DB4 or DB5 was used as template even under
low stringencies (annealing temperature =50°C).
Discussion
Identification of the three heterotrophic strains
A mixed culture is necessary when methanotrophic bacteria are used for the production of SCP from natural gas
(Drozd and McCarthy 1981). In the BioProtein culture,
three heterotrophic strains grow in association with M.
capsulatus. In the present study, these were identified as
Brevibacillus agri, Ralstonia sp. and Aneurinibacillus sp.
by sequencing parts of their 16S rRNA genes. The idenTable 5 Biochemical characteristics of isolate DB3 in comparison
with R. gilardii LMG 5886
Test
DB3
R. gilardii
LMG 5886a
Catalase
Oxidase
Urease
Growth at 42°C
NO3– → NO2–
Assimilation of
+
+
–
+
–
–
–
–
–
–
+
–
+
–
–
–
+
+
–
+
–
–
–
–
–
–
+
–
–
–
–
–
D-Glucose
D-Galactose
p-Hydroxybenzoate
D-Fructose
2-Ketogluconate
D-Malate
L-Arabinose
n-Caprate
D-Fucose
D-Xylose
N-Acetylglucosamine
a
Data from Coenye et al. (1999)
Table 6 Characteristics of the
two Bacillus strains DB4 and
DB5 in comparison with
A. migulanus ATCC 9999 and
Brevibacillus agri NRRL
NRS-1219
a
Data for Bacillus migulanus
= Aneurinibacillus migulanus
from Takagi et al. (1993)
b Data for Bacillus agri NRLL
NRS-1219 from Nakamura
(1993)
c Data for Bacillus galactophilus
NRRL NRS-616 from Takagi
et al. (1993). B. galactophilus
was later identified as Bacillus
agri (Shida et al. 1994b)
Test
Catalase
Oxidase
NO3– → NO2–
Sporangia
Cell size
Acid from
tification of the two Bacillus strains was confirmed by a
PCR method using primers specific for the detection of
members of the Aneurinibacillus and Brevibacillus
groups (Shida et al. 1996). The association of M. capsulatus
with the three heterotrophs was observed in various
BioProtein production reactors. The strains are nowadays
added to the M. capsulatus culture to facilitate its
growth. It can be assumed that very similar strains will
invade an M. capsulatus culture when this organism is
grown on natural gas at other locations. It is noteworthy
in this context that the sequence of a Ralstonia sp. PHS1
isolate recently deposited at the NCBI databank (Lee and
Lee 2000) shows 98% identity to the Ralstonia strain
characterised here (see Table 1). Lee and Lee (2000)
describe this Korean isolate as a novel thermotolerant,
versatile bacterium that degrades benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and o-xylene.
Isolate DB3 also shows strong 16S rRNA sequence
identity to the well-described Ralstonia gilardii type
strain LMG 5886 (Table 1). Additionally, the phenotypic
characteristics coincide with typical features described
for R. gilardii strains (Coenye et al. 1999, see Table 5).
These features can be used to discriminate R. gilardii
from other Ralstonia-species, such as R. eutropha,
R. pickettii and R. solanacearum (Coenye et al. 1999).
The biochemical characterisation of the two Bacillus
isolates is in accord with the molecular biological data,
but some dissimilarities are also obvious (Table 6). Nonswollen sporangia seen in the case of the newly isolated
B. agri strain (DB5) are atypical for the Brevibacillus
cluster. However, sporulation was not easily achieved
under the culture conditions tested. Under the culture
conditions employed, DB4 is non-motile, in contrast to
all the members of the Aneurinibacillus group. Otherwise, this isolate exhibits typical features described for
A. aneurinolyticus and A. migulanus strains (Shida et al.
1994a). These comprise bacteria of rod-shaped appearance which are Gram-positive and possess oval spores
occurring in swollen sporangia.
DB4
+
+
+
Swollen
1–1.5×3–8 µm
D-Glucose
–
L-Arabinose –
D-Xylose
–
–
D-Mannitol
Hydrolysis of
Gelatine
+
Starch
–
Tween 80
–
Utilisation of citrate
–
Voges-Proskauer
–
Motility
–
Gram-staining
+
Growth at 50°C
+
A. migulanus
ATCC 9999a
DB5
B. agri
NRS-1219
+
+
+
Swollen
0.5–1×2–6 µm
–
–
–
–
–
–
–
–
–
+
+
+
–
–
–
Not swollen
0.8–1×2–6 µm
+
–
–
+
+
–
+
–
–
+
+
+
+b
–b
–b
Swollenb
0.5–1×2–5 µmb
+b
–b
–c
+b
+c
–b
+c
–b
–b
+b
+b/±c
max. 40°Cb; +c
38
The role of the three heterotrophic strains
in the fermentation process
The heterotrophic strains eliminate organic carbon from
the bioreactor. The main role of Ralstonia sp. very likely
consists of removing acetate (and possibly other carboxylic
acids) formed by M. capsulatus. The two Bacillus strains
also utilise acetate, but they exhibited poorer growth
yields than the Ralstonia isolate in batch culture experiments. Without Ralstonia sp., it is in fact difficult (if not
impossible) to establish a bioreactor cultivation of the
mixed BioProtein culture on natural gas or methane
containing 5% ethane. In such cultivations, acetate
accumulated to inhibitory concentrations (470–475 ppm),
whereas lower acetate concentrations (225 ppm) were
observed when M. capsulatus was grown in co-culture
with only the Ralstonia strain.
The bacilli are involved in elimination of further
organic material. The Brevibacillus agri strain especially,
utilised organic matter effectively and was the only
isolate which degraded DNA. None of the bacteria
utilised whole proteins, but once these were degraded
to smaller peptides or free amino acids (probably by
M. capsulatus proteases), all isolates removed these from
the broth.
Because of the limited amount of organic matter in
the BioProtein culture, the risk of contamination by other
(possibly pathogenic) bacteria is marginal. An industrial
scale SCP production process is not feasible under completely sterile conditions. Any contamination, especially
by Bacillus cereus strains known to cause food poisoning
(Lund 1990) has to be avoided. Both the Aneurinibacillus
and the Brevibacillus agri strains were found to be taxonomically distinct from the Bacillus cereus group. Additionally, PCR experiments indicated that both Bacillus
strains do not possess genes encoding the enterotoxins
NHE and HBL. Clearly, negative results in PCR experiments have to be interpreted cautiously. However, the
toxicity genes are very much conserved among different
bacteria (Prüß et al. 1999) and control experiments with
bacteria possessing the genes were positive. Thus, all the
data obtained in the present study indicate that the
contaminants are non-toxic, which is a prerequisite for
their use in the BioProtein culture.
It may be argued that the co-culture of M. capsulatus
(Bath) with the now identified Ralstonia, Aneurinibacillus
and Brevibacillus agri strains is a special case during
BioProtein production. However, natural gas as a cheap
methane source contains a number of organic compounds
that prevent growth of M. capsulatus. Consequently,
a consortium of heterotrophic bacteria like the one
described in the present study will always be necessary
to degrade these compounds and thus enable growth of
methanotrophic bacteria on natural gas.
Acknowledgements We thank Dr. Jordi B. Figueras and Dr.
Raymond P. Cox, Institut for Biokemi og Molekulær Biologi at
Syddansk Universitet, for their assistance. This work was supported
by a grant from The European Community TMR Contract
ERBFMRXCT 980207.
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