Heterotrophic bacteria perform two major functions in the transformation of organic matter: They produce new bacterial biomass (bacterial secondary production [BP]), and they respire organic C to inorganic C (bacterial respiration [BR]). For planktonic bacteria, a great deal has been learned about BP and its regulation during the past several decades but far less has been learned about BR. Our lack of knowledge about BR limits our ability to understand the role of bacteria in the carbon cycle of aquatic ecosystems. Bacterial growth efficiency (BGE) is the amount of new bacterial biomass produced per unit of organic C substrate assimilated and is a way to relate BP and BR: BGE = (BP)/(BP + BR). Estimates of BGE for natural planktonic bacteria range from <0.05 to as high as 0.6, but little is known about what might regulate this enormous range. In this paper we review the physiological and ecological bases of the regulation of BGE. Further, we assemble the literature of the past 30 years for which both BP and BR were measured in natural planktonic ecosystems and explore the relationship between BGE and BP. Although the relationship is variable, BGE varies systematically with BP and the trophic richness of the ecosystem. In the most dilute, oligotrophic systems, BGE is as low as 0.01; in the most eutrophic systems, it plateaus near 0.5. Planktonic bacteria appear to maximize carbon utilization rather than BGE. A consequence of this strategy is that maintenance energy costs (and therefore maintenance respiration) seems to be highest in oligotrophic systems.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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