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Growth Requirements of E. coli and Auxotrophs

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Hartsock

Angela has taught college microbiology and anatomy & physiology, has a doctoral degree in microbiology, and has worked as a post-doctoral research scholar for Pittsburgh’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.

E. coli is prototroph bacteria capable of synthesizing all the growth factors necessary for survival, whereas auxotroph bacteria is a mutant strain incapable of producing a specific growth factor. Learn about extreme bacteria, factors that control the rate of bacterial growth like temperature, oxygen concentration, and pH, as well as the growth requirements of E. coli auxotrophs. Updated: 09/13/2021

Extreme Bacteria

The bacterial world is everywhere. It is amazing the places that scientists have been able to find bacteria growing and surviving - deep ocean vents, boiling hot springs, water with extremely high salt concentrations, and even in ice! These extreme environments are now known to be bustling bacterial ecosystems and illustrate how versatile and adventurous bacteria can be. But don't pack your bags, because today we will not be journeying into any of those crazy environments to learn about those cool bugs. Instead, just look down at your gut. That is the destination of our journey today.

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  • 0:07 Extreme Bacteria
  • 0:45 E. coli
  • 1:25 Growth Factors
  • 6:15 Auxotrophs
  • 7:31 Lesson Summary
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Escherichia Coli

Escherichia coli, or E. coli for short, is a Gram-negative, rod-shaped bacteria that is a normal inhabitant of the lower gastrointestinal tract of warm-blooded animals. E. coli and mammals have been evolving together since they both appeared on Earth between 120 and 160 million years ago. You can imagine that throughout all these years, E. coli has evolved to thrive in the gut environment. As a result, the optimum growth conditions for E. coli might as well be a list of conditions in the average mammalian gut. Before we look at E. coli specifically, let's take a quick look at what all organisms need for survival.

Growth Factors

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur are chemical elements required to build nearly all cellular components. In addition to these major elements, elements like iron, selenium, calcium, sodium, and several others are required to build specific structures and perform specific processes. E. coli, along with all other living organisms, requires environmental sources of all of these elements in order to survive. Most of these elements come from food sources, like carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

In addition to these building blocks are growth factors, which are essential metabolites an organism needs but is unable to synthesize. Growth factors can include amino acids, nucleotides, fatty acids, or vitamins. In history class, you might remember learning about pirates developing scurvy after long voyages at sea. Scurvy, characterized by lethargy and eventual death, is caused by a deficiency of vitamin C. Humans are unable to synthesize vitamin C and must consume it in their diet. To you and me, vitamin C is a growth factor.

The naturally occurring (wild-type) strain of E. coli doesn't require any growth factors. If given the appropriate elements and an energy source, E. coli can synthesize all 20 amino acids, all vitamins, all nucleotides, and all fatty acids that it uses during growth and metabolism. Pretty efficient, right? Well, kind of.

Despite E. coli's ability to make its own growth factors, there is an advantage to supplying them. It takes a lot of energy to produce every single growth factor needed. E coli is able to grow and reproduce much faster if these compounds are provided. To a scientist experimenting on E. coli, faster growth allows more experiments and more data. With the right conditions and a complete mix of growth factors, an E. coli population can double in size about every 20 minutes. In the colon, where E. coli has to compete for growth factors with other intestinal bacteria and the host, it can take around 12 hours for the population to double.

Now that we understand the basic element and growth factor requirements, let's move on to discussing some of the growth variables that depend on the environment and also that we can vary within the lab.


You probably know your body temperature: 37 degrees Celsius, or a more familiar 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Since E. coli evolved in your colon, it isn't a stretch to find that the optimum temperature for its growth is around 37 degrees Celsius. Bacteria that thrive at these temperatures are called mesophiles. A mesophile is able to grow and divide between 10 degrees Celsius and 45 degrees Celsius. Most bacteria that live associated with mammals are mesophiles. Evolution has fine-tuned the bacteria to be able to grow best at the average temperature of its host. An E. coli cell will not die if it is removed from a 37-degree environment, but its growth rate will slow down.

Oxygen Concentration

The colon is, for the most part, an anaerobic environment. The absence of oxygen is obviously not a problem for E. coli, considering this is where it evolved to live.

But what about those deadly food-poisoning E. coli? They are usually found on the surfaces of unwashed vegetables and on contaminated beef. These areas are exposed to atmospheric oxygen concentrations. But E. coli can handle these wild swings in oxygen concentration no problem.

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