Despite a large number of studies on the role of oxygen in cellular processes, there is no consensus as to how oxygen availability to the cell should be defined, let alone how it should be quantified. Here, a quantitative definition for oxygen availability (perceived aerobiosis) is presented; the definition is based on a calibration with reference to the minimal oxygen supply rate needed for fully oxidative catabolism (i.e., complete conversion of the energy source to CO(2) and water for glucose-limited conditions). This quantitative method is used to show how steady-state electron fluxes through the alternative cytochrome oxidases of Escherichia coli are distributed as a function of the extent of aerobiosis of glucose-limited chemostat cultures. At low oxygen availability the electron flux is mainly via the high-affinity cytochrome bd oxidase, and, at higher oxygen availability, a similar phenomenon occurs but now via the low-affinity cytochrome bo oxidase. The main finding is that the catabolic activities of E. coli (and specifically its respiratory activity) are affected by the actual oxygen availability per unit of biomass rather than by the residual dissolved oxygen concentration of the culture.
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