Rumen microbes produce cellular protein inefficiently partly because they do not direct all ATP toward growth. They direct some ATP toward maintenance functions, as long-recognized, but they also direct ATP toward reserve carbohydrate synthesis and energy spilling (futile cycles that dissipate heat). Rumen microbes expend ATP by vacillating between (1) accumulation of reserve carbohydrate after feeding (during carbohydrate excess) and (2) mobilization of that carbohydrate thereafter (during carbohydrate limitation). Protozoa account for most accumulation of reserve carbohydrate, and in competition experiments, protozoa accumulated nearly 35-fold more reserve carbohydrate than bacteria. Some pure cultures of bacteria spill energy, but only recently have mixed rumen communities been recognized as capable of the same. When these communities were dosed glucose in vitro, energy spilling could account for nearly 40% of heat production. We suspect that cycling of glycogen (a major reserve carbohydrate) is a major mechanism of spilling; such cycling has already been observed in single-species cultures of protozoa and bacteria. Interconversions of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) may also expend ATP and depress efficiency of microbial protein production. These interconversions may involve extensive cycling of intermediates, such as cycling of acetate during butyrate production in certain butyrivibrios. We speculate this cycling may expend ATP directly or indirectly. By further quantifying the impact of reserve carbohydrate accumulation, energy spilling, and SCFA interconversions on growth efficiency, we can improve prediction of microbial protein production and guide efforts to improve efficiency of microbial protein production in the rumen.
Keywords: energy spilling; glycogen; reserve carbohydrate; rumen microbiology; short-chain fatty acids.