Potentiometric titrations of Bacillus subtilis cells to low pH and a comparison of modeling approaches

Jeremy B. Fein, Jean François Boily, Nathan Yee, Drew Gorman-Lewis, Benjamin F. Turner

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To provide constraints on the speciation of bacterial surface functional groups, we have conducted potentiometric titrations using the gram-positive aerobic species Bacillus subtilis, covering the pH range 2.1 to 9.8. Titration experiments were conducted using an auto-titrator assembly, with the bacteria suspended in fixed ionic strength (0.01 to 0.3 M) NaClO4 solutions. We observed significant adsorption of protons over the entire pH range of this study, including to the lowest pH values examined, indicating that proton saturation of the cell wall did not occur under any of the conditions of the experiments. Ionic strength, over the range studied here, did not have a significant effect on the observed buffering behavior relative to experimental uncertainty. Electrophoretic mobility measurements indicate that the cell wall is negatively charged, even under the lowest pH conditions studied. These experimental results necessitate a definition of the zero proton condition such that the total proton concentration at the pH of suspension is offset to account for the negative bacterial surface charge that tends towards neutrality at pH <2. The buffering intensity of the bacterial suspensions reveals a wide spread of apparent pKa values. This spread was modeled using three significantly different approaches: a Non-Electrostatic Model, a Constant Capacitance Model, and a Langmuir-Freundlich Model. The approaches differ in the manner in which they treat the surface electric field effects, and in whether they treat the proton-active sites as discrete functional groups or as continuous distributions of related sites. Each type of model tested, however, provides an excellent fit to the experimental data, indicating that titration data alone are insufficient for characterizing the molecular-scale reactions that occur on the bacterial surface. Spectroscopic data on the molecular-scale properties of the bacterial surface are required to differentiate between the underlying mechanisms of proton adsorption inherent in these models. The applicability and underlying conceptual foundation of each model is discussed in the context of our current knowledge of the structure of bacterial cell walls.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1123-1132
Number of pages10
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 1 2005
Externally publishedYes


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology

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