Phases of Bacterial Growth


Population growth is studied by analyzing the growth curve of a
microbial culture.

• When microorganisms are cultivated in liquid medium, they
usually are grown in a batch culture or closed system— i.e., they
are incubated in a closed culture vessel with a single batch of
• Because no fresh medium is provided during incubation, nutrient
concentrations decline and concentrations of wastes increase.
• The growth of microorganisms reproducing by binary fission can
be plotted as the logarithm of the number of viable cells versus the
incubation time.
• The resulting curve has four distinct phases.

Lag Phase
• When microorganisms are introduced into fresh culture medium,
usually no immediate increase in cell number occurs, and
therefore this period is called the lag phase.
• Although cell division does not take place right away and there is
no net increase in mass, the cell is synthesizing new components.
• A lag phase prior to the start of cell division can be necessary for a
variety of reasons.
• The cells may be old and depleted of ATP, essential cofactors, and
ribosomes; these must be synthesized before growth can begin.
• The medium may be different from the one the microorganism was
growing in previously. Here new enzymes would be needed to use
different nutrients. Possibly the microorganisms have been injured
and require time to recover.
• Whatever the causes, eventually the cells retool, replicate their
DNA, begin to increase in mass, and finally divide.
• The lag phase varies considerably in length with the condition of
the microorganisms and the nature of the medium.
• This phase may be quite long if the inoculum is from an old
culture or one that has been refrigerated. Inoculation of a culture
into a chemically different medium also results in a longer lag
• On the other hand, when a young, vigorously growing exponential
phase culture is transferred to fresh medium of the same
composition, the lag phase will be short or absent.

Exponential Phase
• During the exponential or log phase, microorganisms are growing
and dividing at the maximal rate possible given their genetic
potential, the nature of the medium, and the conditions under
which they are growing.
• Their rate of growth is constant during the exponential phase; that
is, the microorganisms are dividing and doubling in number at
regular intervals.
• Because each individual divides at a slightly different moment, the
growth curve rises smoothly rather than in discrete jumps.
• The population is most uniform in terms of chemical and
physiological properties during this phase; therefore exponential
phase cultures are usually used in biochemical and physiological
• Exponential growth is balanced growth.
• That is, all cellular constituents are manufactured at constant
rates relative to each other.
• If nutrient levels or other environmental conditions change,
unbalanced growth results.
• This is growth during which the rates of synthesis of cell
components vary relative to one another until a new balanced state
is reached.
• This response is readily observed in a shift-up experiment in which
bacteria are transferred from a nutritionally poor medium to a
richer one.
• The cells first construct new ribosomes to enhance their capacity
for protein synthesis.
• This is followed by increases in protein and DNA synthesis.
• Finally, the expected rise in reproductive rate takes place.
• Unbalanced growth also results when a bacterial population is
shifted down from a rich medium to a poor one.
• The organisms may previously have been able to obtain many cell
components directly from the medium.
• When shifted to a nutritionally inadequate medium, they need time
to make the enzymes required for the biosynthesis of unavailable
• Consequently cell division and DNA replication continue after the
shift-down, but net protein and RNA synthesis slow.
• The cells become smaller and reorganize themselves metabolically
until they are able to grow again.
• Then balanced growth is resumed and the culture enters the
exponential phase.
• These shift-up and shift-down experiments demonstrate that
microbial growth is under precise, coordinated control and
responds quickly to changes in environmental conditions.
• When microbial growth is limited by the low concentration of a
required nutrient, the final net growth or yield of cells increases
with the initial amount of the limiting nutrient present.
• This is the basis of microbiological assays for vitamins and other
growth factors.
• The rate of growth also increases with nutrient concentration, but
in a hyperbolic manner much like that seen with many enzymes.
• The shape of the curve seems to reflect the rate of nutrient uptake
by microbial transport proteins.
• At sufficiently high nutrient levels the transport systems are
saturated, and the growth rate does not rise further with
increasing nutrient concentration.

Stationary Phase
• Eventually population growth ceases and the growth curve
becomes horizontal.
• This stationary phase usually is attained by bacteria at a
population level of around 109 cells per ml.
• Other microorganisms normally do not reach such high population
densities, protozoan and algal cultures often having maximum
concentrations of about 106 cells per ml.
• However, the final population size depends on nutrient availability
and other factors, as well as the type of microorganism being
• In the stationary phase the total number of viable microorganisms
remains constant.
• This may result from a balance between cell division and cell
death, or the population may simply cease to divide though
remaining metabolically active.
• Microbial populations enter the stationary phase for several
• One obvious factor is nutrient limitation; if an essential nutrient is
severely depleted, population growth will slow.
• Aerobic organisms often are limited by O2 availability.
• Oxygen is not very soluble and may be depleted so quickly that
only the surface of a culture will have an O2 concentration
adequate for growth.
• The cells beneath the surface will not be able to grow unless the
culture is shaken or aerated in another way.
• Population growth also may cease due to the accumulation of toxic
waste products.
• This factor seems to limit the growth of many anaerobic cultures
(cultures growing in the absence of O2).
• For example, streptococci can produce so much lactic acid and
other organic acids from sugar fermentation that their medium
becomes acidic and growth is inhibited.
• Streptococcal cultures also can enter the stationary phase due to
depletion of their sugar supply.
• Finally, there is some evidence that growth may cease when a
critical population level is reached.
• Thus entrance into the stationary phase may result from several
factors operating in concert.
• As we have seen, bacteria in a batch culture may enter stationary
phase in response to starvation.
• This probably often occurs in nature as well because many
environments have quite low nutrient levels.
• Starvation can be a positive experience for bacteria.
• Many do not respond with obvious morphological changes such as
endospore formation, but only decrease somewhat in overall size,
often accompanied by protoplast shrinkage and nucleoid
• The more important changes are in gene expression and
• Starving bacteria frequently produce a variety of starvation
proteins, which make the cell much more resistant to damage in a
variety of ways.
• They increase peptidoglycan cross-linking and cell wall strength.
• The Dps (DNA-binding protein from starved cells) protein protects
• Chaperones prevent protein denaturation and renature damaged
• As a result of these and many other mechanisms, the starved cells
become harder to kill and more resistant to starvation itself,
damaging temperature changes, oxidative and osmotic damage,
and toxic chemicals such as chlorine.
• These changes are so effective that some bacteria can survive
starvation for years.
• Clearly, these considerations are of great practical importance in
medical and industrial microbiology.
• There is even evidence that Salmonella typhimurium and some
other bacterial pathogens become more virulent when starved.

Death Phase
• Detrimental environmental changes like nutrient deprivation and
the buildup of toxic wastes lead to the decline in the number of
viable cells characteristic of the death phase.
• The death of a microbial population, like its growth during the
exponential phase, is usually logarithmic (that is, a constant
proportion of cells die every hour).
• This pattern in viable cell count holds even when the total cell
number remains constant because the cells simply fail to lyse after
• Often the only way of deciding whether a bacterial cell is viable is
by incubating it in fresh medium; if it does not grow and
reproduce, it is assumed to be dead.
• That is, death is defined to be the irreversible loss of the ability to
• Although most of a microbial population usually dies in a
logarithmic fashion, the death rate may decrease after the
population has been drastically reduced.
• This is due to the extended survival of particularly resistant cells.
• For this and other reasons, the death phase curve may be

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