It has been known for many years that oxygen (O2) may have toxic effects on aerobically growing microorganisms, mainly due to the threat arising from reactive oxygen species (ROS). In submerged culture industrial fermentation processes, maintenance of adequate levels of O2 (usually measured as dissolved oxygen tension (DOT)) can often be critical to the success of the manufacturing process. In viscous cultures of filamentous cultures, actively respiring, supplying adequate levels of O2 to the cultures by conventional air sparging is difficult and various strategies have been adopted to improve or enhance O2 transfer. However, adoption of those strategies to maintain adequate levels of DOT, that is, to avoid O2 limitation, may expose the fungi to potential oxidative damage caused by enhanced flux through the respiratory system. In the past, there have been numerous studies investigating the effects of DOT on fungal bioprocesses. Generally, in these studies moderately enhanced levels of O2 supply resulted in improvement in growth, product formation and acceptable morphological changes, while the negative impact of higher levels of DOT on morphology and product synthesis were generally assumed to be a consequence of "oxidative stress." However, very little research has actually been focused on investigation of this implicit link, and the mechanisms by which such effects might be mediated within industrial fungal processes. To elucidate this neglected topic, this review first surveys the basic knowledge of the chemistry of ROS, defensive systems in fungi and the effects of DOT on fungal growth, metabolism and morphology. The physiological responses of fungal cells to oxidative stress imposed by artificial and endogenous stressors are then critically reviewed. It is clear that fungi have a range of methods available to minimize the negative impacts of elevated ROS, but also that development of the various defensive systems or responses, can itself have profound consequences upon many process-related parameters. It is also clear that many of the practically convenient and widely used experimental methods of simulating oxidative stress, for example, addition of exogenous menadione or hydrogen peroxide, have effects on fungal cultures quite distinct from the effects of elevated levels of O2, and care must thus be exercised in the interpretation of results from such studies. The review critically evaluates our current understanding of the responses of fungal cultures to elevated O2 levels, and highlights key areas requiring further research to remedy gaps in knowledge.
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